While the week started with a great deal of enthusiasm from Washington about the possibility of lawmakers taking meaningful action to reduce gun violence, White House and Congressional officials are now backing off from an assault weapons ban after running in to staunch opposition from the National Rifle Association.
According to The New York Times after Vice President Joe Biden’s meetings Thursday with gun supporters including the NRA, and Attorney General Eric Holder’s meeting with gun manufacturers and sellers such as Walmart, the White House is now calculating that an assault weapons ban would be too hard to get through Congress. Instead more politically achievable goals, such a strengthening background checks and keeping guns away from the mentally ill, are being considered.
In his public comments after the meetings, Biden never even mentioned an assault weapons ban as he discussed the work of the committee, which will be delivering suggestions to the president on Tuesday. But Biden did note that his former colleagues in the Senate have long been “pretty universally opposed to any restrictions on gun ownership or what type of weapons can be purchased.”
He said they now seemed more open to limits on the purchase of high-capacity magazines.
It is curious that the White House appears ready to back off from an assault weapons ban so soon, after one day of vociferous objections from the NRA. It is as if they didn’t expect the NRA to come out swinging in the face of the most serious effort in two decades to restrict any type of gun ownership.
This is the battle the NRA has been awaiting for years — and certainly since Barack Obama appeared on the national scene. The lobbying group saw a spike in membership as it scared gun owners into thinking that Obama would eventually come for their guns. So now that he has, the NRA has roared back.
The New York Times story implies that the White House is backing away, believing that it should not waste too much political capital when an assault weapons ban is not likely to pass. Trying too hard to get the ban through Congress may mean other Obama initiatives have less chance of passing later on in his term.
After the meeting with Biden, the NRA said the White House had an “agenda to attack the Second Amendment,” and warned it would go to Congress to stop gun restrictions.
“We will now take our commitment and meaningful contributions to members of Congress of both parties who are interested in having an honest conversation about what works — and what does not,” the statement said.
The lobbying group made it clear that it was opposed to any limits on high-capacity magazines or any broadening of background checks.
As the White House was facing the reality of the NRA fight, gun control advocates expressed their excitement about a coalescing for the first time led by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Giffords is a gun owner who was a shot in the head during a gun massacre in 2011. Giffords launched her own political action committee on gun control, with the goal of countering the NRA’s influence. The PAC raised $20 million to lobby Congress and to support candidates running against the NRA.
But the NRA has an annual budget of $300 million and an enormous lobbying machine that scares candidates in local and national elections. According to The Christian Science Monitor, the NRA has signed up 100,000 new members in the past 18 days, as it spread the word that Obama is going after the Second Amendment, which all the gun control advocates who attended the Biden meeting deny.
After Biden appeared to be backing off an effort to get an assault weapons ban, the White House felt the need to clarify.
“President Obama has been clear that Congress should reinstate the assault weapons ban and that avoiding this issue just because it’s been politically difficult in the past is not an option,” said spokesman Matt Lehrich. “He’s also stressed that no single piece of legislation alone can solve this problem, which is why he has asked Vice President Biden to explore a wide array of proposals on topics ranging from gun laws to mental health to school safety.”
While there may be disappointment from the left if the president doesn’t fight to ban assault weapons, gun control advocates said there were other measures that actually could be even more effective in preventing the kinds of recent massacres that have captured public and political attention.
“There’s a natural gravity that happens toward the ban in the wake of tragedies,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, who attended the meeting. “But it’s very important to point out that background checks could have an even bigger impact.”
Another idea that seems to be getting some traction is for the federal government to fund an armed police officer in every school, which sounds like the idea suggested by the NRA in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, Conn.
California Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat, said she had talked about it with Biden and he seemed “very, very interested.”
“If a school district wants to have a community policing presence, I think it’s very important they have it,” Boxer said in an interview Thursday with The Washington Post. “If they want uniformed officers, they can do it. If they want plain-clothed officers, they can do it.”
Boxer, a liberal, said, “I don’t see why anyone should object to it, left or right. It’s an area where I think I can find common ground with my colleagues on all sides.”
But many educators have long objected to the idea of armed police officers in schools, saying they have a negative impact on the educational environment. According to The Washington Post, a coalition of progressive groups — including the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Advancement Project, the Alliance for Educational Justice and Dignity in Schools — will be releasing a report today entitled “Police in Schools Are Not the Answer to the Newtown Shooting.”
“What seems like a rational solution of, ‘let’s have more security in our schools,’ is really the NRA argument — that you fight guns with guns,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project. “The introduction of police officers into schools has a detrimental impact on young people.”