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Obama Finding Gun Control Voice, Which Had Gone Quiet In White House

President Obama attends a vigil for the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims on Sunday in Newtown, Conn.
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President Obama attends a vigil for the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims on Sunday in Newtown, Conn.

If President Obama takes the lead in a movement for more effective gun control now that he's been stirred to action by the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, it would mark a significant break from his pattern so far as chief executive.

For while Obama has dutifully served as the nation's consoler in chief in localities where the all-too-frequent mass shootings have occurred, that has seemed the extent of the official response observable to White House outsiders.

But with the funerals of murdered Connecticut children and educators far from over, the president on Tuesday went further than at any point in his presidency to take up the gun control cause.

White House press secretary Jay Carney told journalists that Obama will "actively support" legislation that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., intends to introduce next year to reinstate the assault weapons ban, which ended in 2004.

Obama also will back legislation to close the so-called gun show loophole — which allows owners to sell weapons to strangers without any background check being done — and a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips, Carney said.

This represents not just a break from how Obama has dealt with the gun issue until now, but also a return to his political roots as a onetime unabashed supporter of gun control.

From his days as an Illinois state senator to his time as a U.S. senator through his first campaign for president, Obama spoke repeatedly for further legislative action to make Americans safer from gun violence.

In his 2008 acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, he even questioned the wisdom of consumer-oriented assault weapons, which suggested that as president he would try to restrict those weapons.

But after he became president, and even as the numbers of mass killings by gunmen climbed, the president grew reticent on gun control. Even after the Tucson, Ariz., attacks by Jared Loughner that left six people dead and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others seriously wounded in January 2011, Obama didn't utter the words "gun control" in his subsequent State of the Union speech.

"It's pretty clear, at least during his first term, that he made a conscious decision to focus on other issues," said Robert Spitzer, a political scientist at SUNY Cortland who has written extensively on gun control.

Obama certainly had plenty on his crowded and urgent agenda when he took office, Spitzer noted in an interview, with an economy that seemed in free fall, a crippled Wall Street and plans to take on health care.

"He clearly turned his attention to other priorities. The question now is, after just being re-elected by a comfortable margin, he has some momentum, he has a mandate, he does have a political opportunity right now to act on the gun issue, if he chooses to do it," said Spitzer.

Not only did a first-term Obama ignore the items on gun control advocates' wish lists, he also left those same advocates bewildered when he expanded gun rights by signing two bills into law — one that allowed the public to carry guns into national parks; another that let passengers carry guns in their luggage on Amtrak trains.

Obama even boasted that his administration had expanded gun rights in a March 2011 op-ed in the Arizona Daily Star in an effort to prove to his gun rights opponents that he wasn't really a threat to their weapons, as he had been characterized.

All of this helped earn the president an "F" for his first year in office from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Yet it did little to gain him supporters among the gun lobby. Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive president, has claimed repeatedly that Obama threatens the Second Amendment.

Gun control advocates aware of Obama's positions over the course of his political career, and who had hoped he would lead on the issue once in the White House, were crestfallen, to say the least.

"I think people had higher hopes for him on this issue based upon some of his statements and positions," said Daniel Webster, professor and director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. "Speaking for myself, I was disappointed. I thought he would try to move the ball forward on this issue."

Webster speculates that Obama fell prey not just to the competing demands of his agenda, but to the anxieties of Democratic policymakers that have existed since the 1990s that gun control is politically hazardous.

"He and presumably his advisers decided that the difficult political situation with gun control would only be a frustration and an impediment to other things he wanted to achieve, including, of course, his own re-election," Webster said. Obama's first-term political adviser, David Axelrod, didn't respond to an NPR interview request.

"The conventional wisdom among many in the [Democratic National Committee] unfortunately in recent years has been that gun control wins you few votes but loses you close elections. And I personally disagree with that, but I think that's been the conventional wisdom," Webster said.

Webster said Democrats misattribute their loss of House control in 1994 and the White House in 2000 to President Clinton signing into law the Brady bill, which required gun dealers to conduct background checks, and the assault weapons ban. He believes other reasons better explain those losses, like Hillary Clinton's 1993 health care proposal.

But now, with the nation's conscience stricken by the Newtown massacre and some gun-rights Democrats shifting their position on the regulation of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, the conventional wisdom seems to have changed.

Still, the challenges before Obama and other Democrats who seek new legislation in the wake of Newtown loom large. As political handicapper Charlie Cook points out, many members of Congress, particularly Republicans, represent parts of the country where gun rights trump gun control.

For such reasons, Spitzer isn't optimistic.

"I think the most likely outcome is that nothing major will happen at the national level," he said. "However, it's possible something could happen at the national level. It's hard to guess what Obama will do. He's proven himself to be a very cautious political leader, despite what his [conservative] critics had said about him."

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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