An emerging frame in the presidential race: President Obama makes hopeful, progressive policy statements, but ones that don’t actually match his administration’s actions during the first term. (For example, while the president is talking a great game on tax justice now, he agreed in 2010 to extend all the Bush rates, and reportedly tried again during the debt ceiling negotiations to make them permanent.) Mitt Romney, meanwhile, just lies about the policy in question. (See here, here, here and here).
In the emerging debate on gun control—and specifically, whether it’s acceptable policy to allow assault rifles be sold freely in this country—we see the two candidates falling into this framework once again.
Last night, addressing the National Urban League Convention in New Orleans, Obama made his most aggressive comments as president about gun control—and seemed to call for a renewal of the assault weapons ban:
I, like most Americans, believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual the right to bear arms. And we recognize the traditions of gun ownership that passed on from generation to generation—that hunting and shooting are part of a cherished national heritage.
But I also believe that a lot of gun owners would agree that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of criminals—that they belong on the battlefield of war, not on the streets of our cities. I believe the majority of gun owners would agree that we should do everything possible to prevent criminals and fugitives from purchasing weapons; that we should check someone’s criminal record before they can check out a gun seller; that a mentally unbalanced individual should not be able to get his hands on a gun so easily.
These steps shouldn’t be controversial. They should be common sense. So I’m going to continue to work with members of both parties, and with religious groups and with civic organizations, to arrive at a consensus around violence reduction—not just of gun violence, but violence at every level, on every step, looking at everything we can do to reduce violence and keep our children safe, from improving mental health services for troubled youth to instituting more effective community policing strategies.
This is encouraging. But it’s important to note that Obama also campaigned on renewing the assault weapons ban in 2008, and then quite literally said nothing about it until last night—even after prominent Congressional Democrats reintroduced legislation banning assault weapons in the wake of the 2011 Tucson shootings. In fact, Obama expanded gun rights as president, signing a credit card reform bill that also allowed people to carry concealed firearms in national parks.
So were last night’s comments the beginning of a new and earnest push to ban assault weapons, or was it more empty election-year pandering? Honest observers are forced to wonder.
Mitt Romney, meanwhile, was asked last night in an interview with NBC’s Brian Williams about the fact that deadly weapons are so freely and legally available in America. Instead of grappling with the issue—and remember, Romney signed an assault weapons ban in Massachusetts—he simply lied and pretended that it’s not actually legal to have those weapons:
Well this person shouldn’t have had any kind of weapons and bombs and other devices and it was illegal for him to have many of those things already. But he had them. And so we can sometimes hope that just changing the law will make all bad things go away. It won’t. Changing the heart of the American people may well be what’s essential, to improve the lots of the American people.
That is categorically false—the Aurora shooter bought all his weapons legally. Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul lamely tried to cover Romney’s misdirection in an e-mail to National Journal, in which she argued “Romney was referring to the bombs the shooter set in his apartment, which police found and disarmed after the shooting occurred.” That’s plainly not what Romney meant (he said “any kind of weapons and bombs and other devices”), and virtually nobody is talking about bomb-control legislation, while everyone is talking about gun control. (Note also, Holmes purchased legal materials to make illegal bombs.) It seems a fair assessment that Romney was avoiding taking a stand on a difficult policy question by simply asserting that it doesn’t exist.