WASHINGTON – With gun legislation taking shape on Capitol Hill, President Barack Obama has kept a low profile on an issue he has made a critical part of his second-term agenda.
The president has not been highly visible in the debate during the past three weeks as gun bills are being written. He’s been embroiled in a budget battle that has dominated his time and for now is letting Vice President Joe Biden bang the drum for tighter firearms laws.
White House officials say the president plans to speak out on gun control as the issue moves toward a Senate vote in the coming weeks. But for now, he’s staying out of delicate negotiations among lawmakers. The White House says he will become more vocal if the legislative process hits a roadblock.
Obama called for a gun control vote in his State of the Union address on Feb. 12 and followed up three days later with a speech on shooting violence in his murder-plagued hometown of Chicago. He’s barely mentioned gun control publicly in the time since, other than during a minute of remarks Thursday, shortly after a Senate committee approved a bill to increase gun trafficking penalties. He thanked the senators who supported it and urged other lawmakers to pass it into law.
“I urge Congress to move on other areas that have support of the American people – from requiring universal background checks to getting assault weapons off our streets – because we need to stop the flow of illegal guns to criminals,” Obama said before signing a revitalized Violence Against Women Act. The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to resume voting on gun bills Tuesday, including an assault weapons ban and background checks that Obama wants.
Biden, a multi-decade veteran of negotiations over gun laws, has been more vocal in the White House’s gun-control campaign with speeches, interviews and private negotiations.
Biden regularly meets with and calls his former Senate colleagues to talk about guns, including holding a White House meeting last week with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., in which they discussed negotiations on background checks that could win support from Republicans. He’s even gotten involved at the state level by calling legislators in places like Colorado that are debating gun legislation. And when Obama convened the first Cabinet meeting of his second term earlier this week, he said he would turn the floor over to Biden to talk about their gun initiatives.
Matt Bennett, spokesman for gun-control proponent Third Way, said it’s good for Obama himself not to get too involved because he’s seen as such a lightning rod on the issue and might stir up more opposition from Republicans. “We don’t want Republican attitudes about him to get in the way of a deal,” Bennett said.
There’s polling to back up that point. When the Pew Research Center asked about Obama’s gun proposals in January, 31 percent felt Obama’s proposals on guns go too far, 13 percent said they didn’t go far enough and 39 percent said they’re about right. But a majority of respondents to an Associated Press-GfK poll around the same time indicated support for his proposals when his name wasn’t attached to them – 84 percent in favor of standard background checks, 55 percent favoring a ban on military-style rapid-fire guns and 51 percent supporting a ban on the sale of high-capacity magazines holding 10 or more bullets.
Despite the high public support, all the measures face a tough fight that will require a well-coordinated campaign to pass in a Congress that has a tradition of defending gun ownership rights.
That campaign is being run out of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, located next to the White House, where the vice president’s staff meets each week with representatives of gun-control groups around a leather-covered conference table. The administration officials and the advocates share updates on the debate and work with Justice Department attorneys on language they can support in the legislation.
Among those who attend are Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group started by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg; Third Way, a centrist organization that advocates on many issues including gun control; the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, named after the White House press secretary seriously wounded in the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981; and Americans for Responsible Solutions, recently started by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and her husband, Mark Kelly.
Mark Glaze, a lobbyist for the mayors’ group, said the White House is doing something right – whether it’s by keeping Biden at the forefront or by Obama hanging back. “Whatever they are doing or not doing is working,” Glaze said. He pointed to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last month that found 61 percent of respondents believe laws covering the sale of firearms should be stricter, up from 56 percent the month before amid the more immediate wake of the shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., that took the lives of 20 students and six workers.
That’s encouraging news for the White House, where Obama acknowledged in the days after the shooting that public outrage over the deaths could fade. “I would hope that our memories aren’t so short that what we saw in Newtown isn’t lingering with us, that we don’t remain passionate about it only a month later,” Obama said at the time. He had given Biden a month’s deadline to recommend steps to reduce gun violence. “I will use all the powers of this office to help advance efforts aimed at preventing more tragedies like this,” Obama said then.
Biden seemed like a natural pick to lead the White House effort since as a senator, he authored a crime bill that included an assault weapons ban that became law and lasted a decade. This time, both sides in the gun debate say an assault weapons ban is unlikely to get past Congress. They agree that the trafficking and background check provisions have better chances of becoming law.
Still, Obama pushed Congress in his State of the Union address to take all the measures up. “Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress. If you want to vote no, that’s your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote,” Obama said.
The remark could be seen as an acknowledgement that the measures may not pass – he was asking lawmakers to vote, not to pass everything. But White House officials have said Obama wants to increase pressure to stop opponents of gun control from keeping the legislation tied up without a vote, a common Senate practice that can bring effective death to legislation.
Forcing a vote on an assault weapons ban that isn’t likely to pass also could give political cover to some moderate Democrats to vote for background checks and trafficking bills. Then those senators can tell gun owners back home that even though they supported background checks or anti-trafficking bills, they didn’t support anything that would take away a single gun from law-abiding citizens.