Analysis: Obama, Romney wise to steer clear of gun-rights issue

President Obama and rival Mitt Romney issued similar statements Friday expressing shock and offering their condolences after the shooting rampage in Aurora, Colo. Absent was any discussion of gun control or ways to end gun violence.

That is hardly surprising and is perhaps appropriate on this day. Presidential politicking will resume soon enough.

But don't count on a whole lot of substantive talk about guns or gun control between, say, next week and Nov. 6 -- at least from the two main contestants for the White House.

Few issues evoke as much emotion as the personal right to bear firearms, and Obama and Romney have their reasons to steer clear of any lengthy debate.

It has become an article of faith among Democrats that Al Gore lost the White House in 2000 (or least failed to win enough votes to avoid losing the contest in the U.S. Supreme Court) because of his support for gun control. Despite the alarums of the gun lobby and other Obama critics, the president has not signed a single piece of major gun-control legislation, nor has Congress given him the opportunity.

Look at this year's political map -- not just the heavily rural and gun-friendly presidential battlegrounds of Nevada, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, but the states with hotly contested Senate races, including Virginia, Missouri and Montana -- and it is clear why Obama would rather stay mum than hand Republicans a campaign talking point. ("Those liberals back in Washington want to take away your guns!" as innumerable GOP candidates have argued.)

Indeed, White House spokesman Jay Carney notably mentioned 2nd Amendment rights as he discussed the Aurora tragedy with reporters en route to an Obama campaign event in Fort Myers, Fla.

"The president believes we need to take common-sense measures that protect the 2nd Amendment rights of Americans while ensuring that those who should not have guns under existing laws do not get them," Carney said. "We're making progress in that regard in terms of improving the volume and quality of information on background checks."

Romney, whose credentials are perennially suspect in some conservative quarters, will certainly not do anything to agitate the 2nd Amendment crowd. As governor of Massachusetts, he backed an assault weapons ban and a waiting period to buy firearms; as a presidential candidate, he’s backpedaled from those heresies ever since.

Reacting to the shootings, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a staunch advocate of gun control, virtually taunted the two presidential candidates to offer more than platitudes, however sincere or well-meaning they may be.

“You know, soothing words are nice,” he said on WOR radio, “but maybe it’s time that the two people who want to be president of the United States stand up and tell us what they are going to do about it, because this is obviously a problem across the country.”

Bloomberg may as well save his breath for his campaign against super-sized sodas.

In September 1999, a gunman killed seven people at a Baptist church in Fort Worth before turning the weapon on himself. Then-Gov. George W. Bush, the front-runner for the GOP nomination, cut short a campaign swing through Michigan to fly home and visit with some of the hospitalized survivors. At a news conference, he ruled out the need for stronger gun controls, ignoring Democrats who vowed to make guns--and Texas' gun-friendly culture--a major issue in the 2000 presidential race.

At the time, polls showed a majority of Americans supported tougher gun laws. But those sentiments have shifted over the past decade.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted in April--in line with others--found that 49% of those questioned said the right to own guns was more important than controlling gun ownership. Forty-five percent of those surveyed held the opposite view.

Avoiding politics may be the respectful thing to do as the nation grieves the dead and wounded in Colorado. Politically, it is also the safe thing to do.

mark.barabak@latimes.com

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