NATIONAL POLITICS

Clash over guns shows Washington excels at stirring outrage

After mulling over a proposal to impose sweeping gun control by executive order, President Obama this week instead shelved the idea and settled for a few memos warning firearms sellers to run more background checks.

But after months of anticipation that Obama was poised to take strong action, gun control opponents in Washington were cranked up for a furious fight over what they considered impending tyranny.

"Obama wants your guns," declared Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz's website in a headline over a picture of the president dressed as a SWAT commando. It also featured a button to direct readers to donate to the Cruz campaign.

The hue and cry was notable given the relatively minor amount of federal government power that Obama exercised. But it was only the latest example of how Washington's chief product these days isn't laws, it's outrage.

The ever-deepening partisan divide has for years fueled fundraising for both sides: Don't like what the opposition is doing? Donate to us, and we'll stop them!

No event is too small anymore to gear up the hype machine, particularly in an election year and with such an emotionally fraught policy issue as guns.

Obama is no bystander in all of this, of course. The White House generated its own buzz for the president's new gun control program, leaking word that he was looking at issuing an executive order and doing little to tamp down the rising tide of concern over the last three months.

In the end, he didn't issue an order, but instead had his administration write a few letters and promised to crack down on people selling multiple guns, regardless of where sales occur, including flea markets, gun shows and the Internet. Even if vendors claim to be "hobbyists" exempt from licensure, Obama said, if they are acting like gun dealers, they will have to apply for licenses and start conducting background checks on buyers.

Still, the response has been so hyperpartisan that even the hyperpartisans were shocked.

"I'm a professional hyperbolist. I enjoy and encourage ridiculous overstatement and participate in it every day," said Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and commentator. "Even for me, this is beyond the pale."

Republicans attribute the response to long-standing frustration over what they see as Obama's failure to work in a collaborative way.

"The president took office promising to unify the country, but unfortunately his administration has spent the past seven years stirring up their base and avoiding anything that looks like common ground," said John Ashbrook, a Republican strategist and former aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

In years past, there appeared to be more patience for a diversity of opinions. During his time in office, President George W. Bush said he believed in background checks at gun shows or, for that matter, "anywhere." His brother Jeb Bush and fellow Republican John McCain, the Arizona senator, also voiced concerns about the gun-show loophole.

But the issue has become increasingly partisan. If Obama's for something, Republicans are almost always opposed. Likewise, Democrats rarely embrace GOP priorities.

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When the handgun control measure known as the Brady bill came up for consideration 20 years ago, it passed with the support of former President Reagan, Begala recalled. Obama could never hope for such a backing today, he said, because of the way the partisan lines have hardened.

The media landscape has also changed during that time, with social media and niche outlets widening the partisan divide.

"Rolling out any new initiative is now a three-dimensional chess game involving social media and targeted audiences," said Mike McCurry, a former White House press secretary who introduced many initiatives for President Clinton. "The old playbooks from the 20th century don't work."

In this case, the Obama administration managed to excite interest in the subject of gun violence in the traditional and new media alike. The president announced in October that he had ordered his staff to "scrub" existing laws for any possible executive action he could take.

As part of the policy announcement, Obama participated Thursday in a prime-time, nationally televised town hall on the subject.

He came ready to engage with some tough talk of his own. He denounced the National Rifle Assn. for being unwilling to join the discussion at George Mason University in Virginia hosted by CNN, noting it was taking place "just down the street" from its national headquarters.

"We have invited them repeatedly," Obama said. "But if you listen to the rhetoric, it is so over the top and so overheated."

NRA officials declined to comment. Christopher Cox, the group's executive director, told Fox News Channel immediately after Obama's appearance that the president was engaging in political theatrics.

"The president is creating an illusion that he is doing something to keep people safe. He needs to do that because his policies failed miserably," Cox said. "This president didn't use it as an opportunity to unite this country. Didn't use it as an opportunity to lay out a plan to defeat terrorism. He used it as an opportunity to impose more gun control on law-abiding Americans."

Also Thursday the president announced he would not support any candidate, even from his own party, who did not support the same kind of "common sense" gun laws he did. On Friday he was set to discuss the issue with Organizing for Action, which evolved out of his former campaign organizing committee.

michael.memoli@latimes.com

christi.parsons@latimes.com

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 09, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Hype springs from partisan divide - As Obama pushes his gun control plan, both parties ramp up the rhetoric to bolster their positions." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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