Democratic gun reformers give Obama a pass as they push for tougher laws

Democratic gun reformers are giving President Obama a pass as they push support for tougher gun laws.

In the wake of last week’s shooting massacre in Colorado, Obama has called for a broad approach to fighting gun violence, but he’s stopped short of pressing Congress to pass new gun reforms, which are increasingly seen as a third-rail in Washington politics.

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If Democrats are disappointed with Obama’s cautious approach, they are not letting it show much in public. Instead liberal gun reformers are attacking Republicans and the gun lobby. 

“I will continue to encourage him to play a role,” Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), among the staunchest gun reformers on Capitol Hill, said Thursday when asked about Obama's position.

As if recognizing his own reserve, Quigley added, “I'm not trying to be funny, I just don't know what else to do.”

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), Congress's loudest voice for tougher gun laws, also declined to poke Obama on the issue, suggesting the president is focused on things like the economy that resonate with a much greater number of voters. 

“I do believe the President of the United States … believes in what we believe in,” she said this week. “But there are other things that, right now, [are] on everybody else's plate.”

The approach by lawmakers highlights the difficulty of moving controversial legislation in an election year – particularly when the White House is up for grabs. And perhaps no single issue is as toxic, in the eyes of lawmakers, as gun reform, which has made Democrats uncomfortable since they lost control of the House in a 1994 sweep often linked to their support for strict gun reforms – including an assault weapons ban – earlier that same year.

The issue is no longer partisan. Quigley, for instance, is quick to note that there hasn't been a single House hearing on guns since he arrived on Capitol Hill more than three years ago. Indeed, when he requested such a hearing in the last Congress when Democrats controlled the chamber, party leaders rebuffed him.

“I never thought the issue would get to this point where we can't even have a conversation,” he said. 

Nothing Congress can do would ever prevent all gun violence, Quigley conceded. “But you tell me we can't even talk about it? That's crazy.”

The gun-reform issue has been front-and-center on Capitol Hill all week, after a gunman stormed into a packed movie theater in Aurora, Col., and shot 70 people, killing 12. The shooter allegedly used an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and a 100-round ammunition clip – both of which were banned by the 1994 assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004.

Gun reformers say a return of those restrictions would save lives.

“The bigger the clips, the more people are going to get killed,” said McCarthy, whose husband was killed during a shooting rampage on a New York commuter train in 1993.

Obama on Wednesday addressed the gun-violence issue, emphasizing his support for the Second Amendment while simultaneously conceding that current safeguards aren't doing enough to tackle the crisis. The president suggested support for tougher gun laws – a position consistent with his 2008 campaign platform – but also indicated that he'll be focusing instead on lesser-profile programs that don't need congressional approval.

“I’m going to continue to work with members of both parties, and with religious groups and with civic organizations, to arrive at a consensus around violence reduction,” he said in an address the National Urban League convention in New Orleans. “Not just of gun violence, but violence at every level, on every step, looking at everything we can do to reduce violence and keep our children safe.”

Such steps, the president said, include “improving mental health services for troubled youth” and “instituting more effective community policing strategies.”

"We should leave no stone unturned, and recognize that we have no greater mission as a country than keeping our young people safe," he added.

White House spokesman Jay Carney on Thursday clarified Obama's comments, saying the president is seeking a "broader effort" to reduce violence that essentially sidesteps a Congress that hasn't shown any appetite for gun reform. 

While Obama supports an assault weapons ban, Carney added, he will focus on avenues "short of legislation and short of gun laws."

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), another long-time gun reform advocate, defended Obama's position this week, saying it's Congress's responsibility to take the lead on gun reform. Just because Obama isn't fighting proactively for new laws, he said, "That doesn't mean that we shouldn't continue to mount the effort.

"That's where it falls, it falls in the Congress. And we'll carry on, [and] he'll be with us 100 percent of the way," Lautenberg added. 

Still, other Democrats conceded that any successful drive to launch a national discussion on gun reform would necessarily require a push from the president.

"He's one-third player in this," Quigley said, "so he has to play a role."

Meanwhile, gun reform advocates off of Capitol Hill aren't being so accepting of Obama's cautious approach. Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, noted this week that Obama had vowed to push for legislative reforms on the 2008 campaign trail, but shied away from the issue when he reached the White House. With that in mind, Gross said he's wary of Obama's recent comments on tackling the nation's gun-violence crisis.