WASHINGTON — More than five months after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head, the White House has yet to take any new steps on gun violence, even though that’s what President Barack Obama called for in the wake of the shooting.
The silence from the administration is drawing criticism from gun control activists and even some of Obama’s Democratic allies. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., told the president in a letter last week that the administration “has not shown the leadership to combat gun violence.”
It’s in keeping with Obama’s general stance on gun issues since taking office: outspoken earlier in his political career in favor of tougher gun measures, he’s treaded carefully since becoming president, almost never raising the topic except when asked and offering, at-most, tepid support for legislation he once embraced, such as re-enacting a ban on assault weapons.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in a statement that the Justice Department is “consulting with the key stakeholders to identify common-sense measures that would improve American safety and security while fully respecting Second Amendment rights.”
Schultz declined to comment beyond that, but whatever the administration produces is likely to fall well short of the steps activists would like to see, such as legislation banning the kind of high-capacity ammunition clips used in the Giffords shooting. Any significant change of that kind would require legislation, but with Congress hostile toward any gun-control bills, the administration sees that avenue as closed.
A government official involved in the talks said that suggestions under consideration include ways to improve the background check system dealers use to avoid selling guns to criminals, which activists say is ineffective and riddled with loopholes. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private deliberations.
Some improvements could be made administratively, such as by providing states clearer guidelines on how to provide criminal information to the federal government for the background check database. Although such steps are not nearly as bold as activist groups, including the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, would like to see, they still hope to see something – and soon.
“We’re coming on the six-month mark since the shooting and still nothing from the administration,” said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign. “It’s time for some action.”
The Justice Department deliberations began in March, after the president broke his usual silence on guns in an opinion piece in Giffords’ hometown newspaper, the Arizona Daily Star. In it, he called for “a new discussion on how we can keep America safe for all our people.”
Even then Obama steered clear of ambitious declarations, timelines or goals, but he did call for “sound and effective steps” to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, including strengthening background checks. Obama said that “if we’re serious about keeping guns away from someone who’s made up his mind to kill, then we can’t allow a situation where a responsible seller denies him a weapon at one store, but he effortlessly buys the same gun someplace else.”
Helmke and others interpreted that as support for closing what’s called the “gun-show loophole,” which allows private sellers to sell firearms at gun shows and elsewhere without conducting background checks. Activist groups say that some 40 percent of gun sales are conducted without background checks.
But doing that would require legislation, and the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups are adamantly opposed. The NRA has not been involved in the Justice Department talks, but the National Shooting Sports Foundation has, and a spokesman said that when they met at the Justice Department, gun-control measures didn’t even come up.
“The topics discussed at the meeting were limited strictly to improving and enhancing the current background check system,” said spokesman Ted Novin, explaining that closing the gun-show loophole would amount to expanding the system, not improving it, and his group doesn’t support an expansion. “No gun-control measures of any kind were discussed during the meeting, nor would this organization support any such proposals that would curtail the lawful commerce of firearms or the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens,” Novin said.
With that kind of opposition from gun-rights groups, an election year approaching and attention focused on the economy, prospects for congressional action are dim. And the Obama administration, in turn, appears unlikely even to try to do anything more than make modest changes that don’t fundamentally alter the nation’s gun policies.