WASHINGTON — Even before he became president, Barack Obama stressed the need to curb gun violence.
“We essentially have two realities when it comes to guns in this country,” Obama said at the 2008 Democratic primary debate in Las Vegas. “We can reconcile those two realities by making sure the Second Amendment is respected and that people are able to lawfully own guns but that we also start cracking down on the kinds of abuses of firearms that we see on the streets.”
But in four years he’s yet to deliver.
Obama instead has found himself, time and time again, comforting a grieving nation: after 13 people were killed in 2009 at a military base in Fort Hood, Texas; after six were shot to death early last year outside a supermarket in Tucson, Ariz.; after 12 died this summer at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.
This week, after 26 people were gunned down Dec. 14 at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., the president said the nation must look for ways to stop the violence. “This time the words need to lead to action,” he said.
Obama tapped Vice President Joe Biden to recommend ways to decrease access to guns and improve access to mental health services and urged Congress to ban the sale of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips. Even some who praised him for his action wondered what took him so long.
“He made a strong case for action when he spoke at the memorial service on Sunday,” said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., whose husband was killed in a shooting on the Long Island Rail Road in 1993. “And I’ll be honest with you, I was surprised by what I heard, because it was more than he has ever said before.”
Obama has never been a friend to the powerful gun lobby, but he’s chosen to avoid the thorny subject of gun control, an issue that was unlikely to win him political points or bring him legislative success. He expressed his view on the topic when asked but rarely volunteered it or lobbied for policy changes, even those that could be made without congressional approval.
As president, Obama loosened some gun restrictions, signing into law measures that allow people to carry concealed weapons in national parks and in checked bags on Amtrak trains. He long supported reinstating a 1994 assault weapons ban that expired in 2004, but he hasn’t pushed to make that happen. Gun advocates say he failed to act on most of the recommendations from his attorney general, Eric Holder, after the Tucson attack, which severely wounded then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz.
White House spokesman Jay Carney reiterated this week that Obama had improved the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which federal firearms licensers are required to use to determine whether a potential buyer is eligible to purchase a gun or explosive.
Both the National Rifle Association and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the pre-eminent gun control organizations in the nation, have given Obama an “F” rating.
The United States has more firearms than other nation in the world _ 270 million, according to the international Small Arms Survey, an independent research project at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.
Background checks to purchase firearms soared in the days after the Newtown shooting after potential buyers became worried about new restrictions. The shooting has led lawmakers who’d been reluctant in the past to begin to consider such curbs.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Democrats didn’t push for legislation to reduce access to guns even when they controlled the White House and Congress because “there was no prospect of success” in a Senate that requires 60 votes to overcome procedural hurdles.
“We wanted the members to be here, to continue to make the fight, so that when there was a prospect of success, they would be here rather than being cleared out by the NRA,” Pelosi said. “We all saw that happen when we lost in 1994 – cleared out by the NRA,” after voting to ban assault weapons.
Gun-control advocates have pressed Obama to fill a years-long vacancy for a director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives while Congress is on recess, since lawmakers have failed to confirm his choice. They also want him to direct his Justice Department to prosecute those who lie on background-check forms and to lift a gag order that keeps the public from receiving information about gun traffickers.
Further, they want the president to lobby Congress to make gun trafficking a felony, require every person-to-person gun sale to be subject to a background check – including private sales – and ban assault weapons.
Democrats have shied away from gun control since the 1990s, particularly after losing so many seats in the 1994 election, when they realized it was working against them in marginal states and wouldn’t make much of an impact on the supply of guns, said William Vizzard, a criminal justice professor at California State University, Sacramento, who was a special agent in charge at the ATF.
“I can’t fault the administration and I’d probably do the same thing, because the first rule of politics is you’ve got to be able to count,” Vizzard said. “It’s like global warming, in that, yes, it’s theoretically possible to do something, but it’s not politically possible.”
The NRA, the nation’s largest gun lobby, spent 3,199 times what the Brady Campaign during the 2012 elections: $18.6 million compared with $5,816, according to the Sunlight Foundation, which promotes transparency in government.
Some of the spending was aimed at Obama, who the NRA charged had “stacked the Supreme Court with anti-gun justices.” The group also seized on his answer to a question in a presidential debate this year, when he tepidly endorsed reviving the assault weapons ban as a way of cutting crime.
One NRA ad accused the administration of “threats to our sovereignty,” a reference to a proposed United Nations international arms-trade treaty that the NRA claims could be used “for the imposition of extremist gun control.”
At a news conference Wednesday announcing efforts to curb gun violence, a reporter asked Obama, “Where have you been?”
“I’ve been president of the United States dealing with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, an auto industry on the verge of collapse, two wars,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve been on vacation.”
David Lightman contributed to this report.