Obama's post-Sandy Hook promise of 'meaningful action' stirs gun-control debate

President Barack Obama wipes his eye as he President Barack Obama wipes his eye as he talks about the Connecticut elementary school shooting in the White House briefing room in Washington. (Dec. 14, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

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Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola), whose husband Dennis was among six Long Island Rail Road commuters killed by a gunman in 1993, responded to President Barack Obama's emotional call for "meaningful action" after Friday's shooting at a Connecticut elementary school.

McCarthy said in a statement that "these shootings are becoming all too common," and said she hoped Obama's promise will ''stay true as we continue down this road again.'' 

Republicans, many of whom rely on backing from the National Rifle Association, shied away from talking about firearms regulation.

Obama's call may signal he's prepared to push for stronger gun-control laws, a politically fraught issue he shied away from during his first term.

The killings of 20 children and seven adults, Obama said, created an imperative to stem gun violence.

"As a country, we have been through this too many times," he said at the White House, pausing several times during his remarks to collect himself as tears welled in his eyes. "And we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this regardless of the politics."

Gun-control advocates immediately challenged Obama to match his words with legislation. After a gunman killed 12 people and wounded 58 others at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater in July the president vowed to seek a national consensus on reducing gun violence. Yet in an election year, no proposals were made.

"Calling for 'meaningful action' is not enough," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, co-chairman of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, said in a statement Friday. "We need immediate action. We have heard all the rhetoric before."

There were at least seven mass murders in the U.S. -- killings of at least four -- that claimed at least 65 lives this year.

''We need to find out what happened and what drove this individual to this place,'' Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the fourth-ranking House Republican, said Friday in an interview scheduled to air Dec. 16 on CSPAN's ''Newsmakers'' program.

''We need to look at what drives a crazy person to do these kinds of actions and make sure that we are enforcing the laws that are currently on the books.''

POLITICAL POWER

Freed from the burden of running for re-election, Obama no longer has to worry about wooing pro-gun voters in competitive states or the political dollars of the powerful gun lobby. Still, challenging the rights of U.S. gun owners remains a difficult fight.

''In the short term, we won't see any new gun-control legislation,'' said Robert Spitzer, an author of four books on the subject, including ''The Politics of Gun Control.'' Congress is busy dealing with budget matters and ''just not in a good position to jump into an issue that they haven't addressed,'' he said.

After Friday's shootings, the president stepped into the role of comforter-in-chief. As the images from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown were broadcast, Obama empathized as a father of two girls.

''There's not a parent in America who doesn't feel the same overwhelming grief that I do," Obama said. "Whether it's an elementary school in Newtown or a shopping mall in Oregon or a temple in Wisconsin or a movie theater in Aurora or a street corner in Chicago, these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods and these children are our children."

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WASHINGTON RESPONSE

Leaders of both parties on Friday put aside a contentious debate over taxes and spending, and the president canceled an appearance next week in Maine to push for a budget deal. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio canceled the Republican weekly address scheduled for today. Obama ordered U.S. flags flown at half-staff at all federal buildings and U.S. facilities overseas.

"The horror of this day seems so unbearable, but we will lock arms and unit as citizens, for that is how Americans rise above unspeakable evil," Boehner said in a statement.

Since the 1994 assault-weapon ban expired in 2004, Congress hasn't enacted any major firearms regulations other than a law aimed at improving state reporting for federal background checks.

The lack of new gun laws reflects the NRA's influence, said Sanford Levinson, a constitutional law professor at University of Texas in Austin.

GUN LOBBY

"The NRA has sufficient control over the Republican Party and the Democratic Party is, for good reason, scared stiff to go out on a limb on this issue," Levinson said. "There is absolutely no chance whatsoever of bipartisan gun control legislation."

The gun lobby's political power was illustrated during the 2012 presidential campaign when, after mass shootings, neither Obama nor his Republican opponent Mitt Romney called for restrictions on gun ownership.

During the Oct. 16 presidential debate at Hofstra University in New York, Obama said that in a second term he would look into reinstating the assault weapon ban, which he supported in the past.

Prefacing his answer by saying Second Amendment rights must be protected, Obama said he's committed to enforcing existing laws, making sure they're keeping guns out of the hands of mentally ill criminals and doing more to enforce background checks.

He was noncommittal about prioritizing the issue in a second term.

"And, so, what I'm trying to do is to get a broader conversation about how do we reduce the violence generally," Obama said at the debate. "Part of it is seeing if we can get an assault weapons ban reintroduced, but part of it is also looking at other sources of the violence, because frankly, in my hometown of Chicago, there's an awful lot of violence, and they're not using AK-47s, they're using cheap handguns."

The NRA on Friday declined to comment "until the facts are thoroughly known," according to an statement released by its communications office. Phone calls to Andrew Arulanandam, an NRA spokesman, weren't returned.

Previous shootings had little impact on public opinion about gun laws.

Views remained virtually unchanged, with voters splitting nearly evenly over the issue, following the Colorado movie theater shooting. While 47 percent said it was more important to control gun ownership, 46 percent prioritized protecting the rights of Americans to own guns, in a national survey conducted July 26-29 by the Pew Research Center.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Friday that reinstating the assault weapons ban "does remain a commitment" while adding that it was "not the day" to revive a policy debate.

Some members of the public disagreed, posting petitions on the White House website. While most backed stricter gun laws, one, with 236 signatures called for "A gun in every classroom. Arm every teacher and principal to defend themselves and their students during an attack."

More than 100 people gathered outside the White House as dusk fell, lighting candles and holding signs calling for stricter gun-control laws.

Among them was Karl Swarts, 29, of Washington, who voted for Obama twice, and said he's disappointed by the president's reluctance to pressure Congress for stricter gun control. He said he was pessimistic that any action will come, saying "the gun lobby is too powerful" and for lawmakers.

"It's one of those things where you fear alienating your constituents by even bringing it up . . . If 20 kids at a school killed senselessly doesn't change anything, I don't know what will," Swarts said.

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