President Obama Has Only Ever Signed Gun Laws That Expand Owners' Rights

mitt romney barack obama

A spate of gun violence has beset the United States ahead of the November election – including shootings at New York’s Empire State Building; an Aurora, Colo., theatre; and an Oak Creek, Wis., Sikh temple – raising the perennial question about how effectively America regulates the 300 million-plus guns in its collective gun cabinet. Yet neither presidential candidate is likely to hoist his own complicated record on gun regulation as a rallying cry.

Here is how President Obama and Mitt Romney have addressed support for the Second Amendment and gun-control laws, as well as whether they own guns and how their vice presidential candidates stack up.

1. Second Amendment

Weighing the two candidates’ views on the Second Amendment, the tone that comes across is surprisingly similar – that while the “right to bear arms” is foundational, it is hardly absolute.

Despite the perception that Mr. Obama is anti-gun rights (gun shop owners say fear of his policies drives strong gun sales), he has repeatedly reaffirmed the right to bear arms. Indeed, the only gun-control laws he has signed as president have been to expand gun rights – allowing guns on national park lands and Amtrak trains. He also said this year that “hunting and shooting are part of a cherished national heritage.”

He does not, however, believe that gun rights should be unrestricted. “The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than they are for those plagued by gang violence in Cleveland, but don’t tell me we can’t uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals,” Obama declared at the Democratic National Convention in 2008.

Former Massachusetts Governor Romney has taken the same line in the past, especially when he was the Republican executive of a Democratic state. “There’s no question I support Second Amendment rights, but I also support an assault weapon ban,” he said in 2007, referring to his signing of a Massachusetts assault-weapons ban in 2004.

But Romney has made more categorical statements in favour of gun rights in recent years. During the presidential campaign he has said he would sign no new gun control laws as president, out of respect for the Second Amendment.

“I do support the right of individuals to bear arms, whether for hunting purposes or for protection purposes or any other reasons,” he said at the 2008 presidential debate in Boca Raton, Fla. “That’s the right that people have.”

Both candidates’ stances seem to reflect political realism. A Pew poll in April found that 55 per cent of independent voters believe “it is more important to protect gun ownership than to control guns.” Only 40 per cent said passing new gun-control laws was more important. What’s more, some political analysts have said it amounts to political suicide to back gun control in key battleground states like Colorado.

2. Where they stand on gun control

Both presidential candidates were blasted by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg – a gun-control advocate – for not taking stronger stands in reaction to the July 20 shootings at a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, which killed 12 people. Considering that the alleged shooter is reported to have bought large amounts of ammunition online and carried the bullets in large magazines, the incident acted as a prism for the candidates’ views on gun control.

A few days after the shootings, Obama did make perhaps his most overt gun-control comment since the 2008 primaries: “I … believe that a lot of gun owners would agree that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of criminals,” he said in New Orleans. “That they belong on the battlefield of war, not on the streets of our cities.”

On Aug. 6, Obama spokesman Jay Carney said that Obama “does support renewing the assault-weapons ban,” which would ban civilians from buying some semiautomatic weapons, but “there has been reluctance by Congress to pass that renewal.”

Obama himself has not publicly pushed a renewal of the federal law, which expired in 2004, though he supported renewal as a presidential candidate. Nor has Obama overtly backed a long-shot Democratic bill that would alert police to large-scale ammunition purchases online.

Instead, Obama more generally called for a “common sense” approach to assault-weapon ownership after the Aurora shootings, specifically that no mentally unstable person should be able to legally buy those kinds of arms. (The mental health of the alleged shooter, James Holmes, is in question.) 

As a former governor who signed an assault-weapons ban, Romney has gone on record supporting such measures in the past. But his views have evolved. In an interview with political blog Instapundit in 2008, Romney said: “I don’t support any gun-control legislation – the effort for a new assault-weapons ban, with a ban on semiautomatic weapons, is something I would oppose. There’s no new legislation that I’m aware of or have heard of that I would support.”

He remained firm on that claim in the Aurora aftermath, saying new laws would not have stopped what happened. And if new laws can’t stop deranged people from mass murdering their fellow citizens, then they will only impact law-abiding citizens, he said.

In a July 23 interview on CNBC‘s “The Kudlow Report,” Romney was also asked whether he’d back proposals to ban online ammunition sales or purchases of semiautomatic rifles. “Our challenge is not the laws, our challenge is people who, obviously, are distracted from reality and do unthinkable, unimaginable, inexplicable things,” Romney answered.

Romney is seen as more likely to support the expansion of gun rights, such as reciprocal concealed carry, which would allow concealed-carry permit holders to move across state lines without fear of getting into trouble with local police – though he has not taken a public stance on the issue. 

Romney’s tenure in Massachusetts was widely seen as a net gain for state gun owners, since he also boosted protections for shooting clubs and relaxed restrictions on manufacturer testing of some types of pistols.

3. Do Obama and Romney pack heat?

The Monitor could find no recorded evidence of the president ever handling, never mind firing, a gun. He has never posed with them, à la former presidential candidate John Kerry, for campaigning purposes. He is not a member of the National Rifle Association.

Instead, perceptions of Obama‘s attitude toward guns have been shaped by a comment that he made at a 2008 fundraiser in San Francisco, saying that small town Pennsylvanians are “bitter” and “cling to guns or religion … to explain their frustrations.” During an Illinois Senate campaign, he also gave answers to a questionnaire that suggested he supported a ban on handguns. (Obama later said a staffer filled in the questionnaire erroneously.)

Unlike Obama, there is a record of Romney handling guns. But an early campaign narrative of him as an avid sportsman a decade ago was eventually watered down to acknowledge that the Michigan native’s hunting experience boils down to a few “varmint” shooting expeditions. 

“I’m not a big-game hunter,” Romney subsequently said.

“Leave it to Mitt Romney to shoot himself in the foot with a gun he doesn’t own,” Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi chuckled at the time.

After proclaiming that his views don’t completely align with the NRA, Romney became a lifetime member of the organisation in 2006.

4. How the VPs stack up

With little to separate the men on the top of the Republican and Democratic tickets on gun rights, the No. 2 slots provide a much clearer picture. Republican Paul Ryan has earned an A grade from the NRA; Vice President Joe Biden earned an F in his time as a senator.

Although he has acknowledged owning a gun, Mr. Biden strongly opposed allowing the assault-weapons ban to sunset in 2004 and has voted to close the so-called gun show loophole for arms purchasing.

Biden’s philosophical view of gun rights came through in an April interview about the Trayvon Martin murder case in Florida, which put a focus on so-called “stand your ground” laws that enshrine the legal idea that citizens have no duty to retreat from attacks, but can reasonably defend themselves, even to the point of using deadly force, without fear of prosecution.

Biden told Jim Lehrer of PBS “News Hour” that “it’s important that people be put in a position where their Second Amendment rights are protected, but that they also don’t, as a consequence of the laws, unintendedly put themselves in harm’s way. The idea that there’s this overwhelming additional security in the ownership and carrying [of] concealed and deadly weapons – the premise, not the constitutional right, but the premise that it makes people safer is one that I’m not so sure of.”

By contrast, Congressman Ryan’s position on guns helps Romney deflect one of the main “Anyone But Romney” complaints on the primary campaign trail – concern about his gun-rights bona fides.

Ryan hunts deer using both rifles and bow and arrow, and his marriage engagement in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel noted that the he is an avid hunter and fisherman who “does his own skinning and butchering and makes his own Polish sausage and bratwurst.”

More crucially, Ryan voted for a gun-rights bill last year that would have extended concealed carry permits across state lines, a so-called reciprocity concept. In other words, a tourist could legally and without further paperwork carry her personal pistol on a trip to New York City, which has some of the toughest local gun laws in the country. The bill eventually was killed in the Democrat-controlled US Senate.

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