By many measures, Americans have changed on the question since the 1990s, when people favored gun control over gun rights—by a 2-to-1 margin in polling after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado. In a Gallup poll last year, 55 percent said gun laws should stay the same or be more lenient, while 43 percent wanted them toughened.
None of this is lost on Washington, where most Democrats long ago abandoned their advocacy of gun control, convinced that it is a losing issue for them. Obama has proposed reinstituting a federal ban on military-style assault weapons that lapsed years ago, but he’s put no weight behind it, while signing laws letting people carry concealed weapons in national parks and in checked bags on Amtrak trains.
After the movie-theater attack, Obama declared “we should leave no stone unturned” to keep young people safe in a speech indicating he would challenge Congress to act on gun control. That expectation lasted for one day. The White House swiftly clarified that Obama would not propose stiffer gun laws this election year and favored more effective enforcement of existing law—a position hardly distinguishable from that of his Republican rival, Mitt Romney.
Likewise, early last year, Obama weighed in on guns after an assailant killed six people and wounded 13, shooting then-Rep. Giffords in the head outside a grocery store in Tucson, Ariz. The president called for “sound and effective steps” in gun laws as part of a “new discussion on how we can keep America safe for all our people.” He soon went back to silence on the topic and gun-control advocates waited in vain for the steps.
With his last presidential campaign behind him, Obama is freer to take up contentious matters that he wouldn’t touch when he was an incumbent seeking re-election. Odds are favorable that he will have at least one vacancy to fill on a Supreme Court now closely divided on gun cases.
The Aurora attack happened in the heat of the campaign, when Democrats wanted no trouble from gun owners. In its first official response to the killings, Obama’s White House pledged to protect fundamental gun rights. Obama and his spokesmen never failed to couple his wish for “common-sense measures” with his devotion to the Second Amendment.
But after the massacre of 20 children on Dec. 14, Obama spoke mainly of the anguish, and the need for action.
“We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true,” he said in a televised speech Dec. 16 from Newtown. “No single law no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society. But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this.”