The survivors of a gun rampage in Tucson came to Washington in August with a simple message for the Obama administration: Do something — anything — to stop the violence.
One was a nurse shopping for Brussels sprouts who rushed to do triage after then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) was shot outside a supermarket. Another was a woman struck three times while shielding her daughter. A third pinned the shooter to the ground with her knees until police arrived.
After meeting for 90 minutes with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., they were hopeful.
“Attorney General Holder was not only sympathetic but empathetic and truly touched by our stories and our actions,” said Patricia Maisch, one of the survivors. “And he was sincere about wanting to help us.”
Holder didn’t tell Maisch and the other victims of last year’s mass shooting that there was little he could, or would, do. The White House calculated that gun-control measures couldn’t pass Congress, and President Obama’s political strategists determined that it was best for him, and for the Democratic Party, if the issue was put off until after the 2012 election.
It took the massacre of 20 children and six adults in a Newtown, Conn., elementary school this month to spur Obama to action. He vowed last week to push for immediate and concrete gun-safety proposals to prevent such carnage.
Obama is a Democrat whose party has long championed gun restrictions, a Chicagoan who came of age in a city ravaged by shootings and the first president from an urban area in the modern era of gun violence. Yet, over four years in office, he took action on guns just once — signing a 2009 law allowing people to carry concealed weapons in national parks. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence gave him an F on its report card the following year.
Obama’s advisers say that even if he had pushed for stricter gun laws, Congress would not have passed them.
“It wasn’t just a matter of competing priorities, but it was a matter of the likelihood of success versus those competing priorities,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political strategist. “There was no consensus in the Congress for action on some of these measures. He could have pursued them, but that would’ve been largely a symbolic act.”
Last week, a reporter asked Obama “where have you been” on gun control for the past four years. The president ticked off the two wars, the recession and other crises that dominated his first term.
“I don’t think I’ve been on vacation,” Obama snapped.
Chicago has been a magnet for violent crime longer than Obama lived there. The president’s home town is grappling with one of the deadliest epidemics of gun violence in the nation. In the 2011-2012 school year, 319 Chicago public school students were shot; 24 of them died.
“When you come from where he comes from, when you represent the area that he represented, you’ve been exposed to a lot of grief and a lot of loss, and that has shaped his views over the years,” said Axelrod, also a Chicagoan.
Hours after the Newtown massacre, an emotional Obama lamented not only recent mass shootings but also the everyday slayings on street corners in Chicago.
As a state senator representing parts of the South Side, Obama supported gun-control efforts, though he was careful not to jump out front on the issue.
During his eight years in Springfield, Ill., gun laws were rarely a top priority for the General Assembly. “I would be surprised if you could find any paper trail of Barack Obama’s position on guns,” said Paul M. Green, director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University.
When he ran for president in 2008, Obama tried not to alienate gun owners. He called for “common-sense gun-safety laws” but also boasted of his belief in the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
Still, he became a target of gun rights advocates, especially after he was overheard telling wealthy donors during the campaign that it was difficult to connect with rural voters because they “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion.”
Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, said he personally lobbied Obama on the issue. In an open letter published in October 2008, Pearson wrote, “The Obama I know sees you, the law abiding gun owner, as nothing but a low-class lummox who is easily swayed by the flash of a smile and a ration of rosy rhetoric.”
With Obama’s election in 2008, gun-control advocates thought the new Democratic administration would champion their cause. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), whose husband was killed when a gunman opened fire on a Long Island Rail Road commuter train in 1993, pressed Obama on the issue.
“When he came to do his ‘State of the Union,’ I said, ‘Sir, with all due respect, we’ve got to do something about gun violence,’ ” McCarthy said. “He said, ‘Carolyn, I want to do something. You know I want to do something. But this takes precedence.”
What took precedence was a never-ending stream of priorities — the economic stimulus, the auto industry bailout, the health-care law, the cap-and-trade legislation, budget bills, repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” food-safety measures, new financial regulations.
“There were different points when there was some discussion about ‘Is there an opportunity to do something?’ The honest answer is, it just wasn’t there,” said a former senior administration official, who, like some others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.
“When President Obama took office, we were faced with a myriad of issues, including a failing auto industry, two wars and the worst recession since the great depression,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, said in a statement. “The president’s record has been clear and his commitment to gun control and protecting our communities has never wavered as a state senator, U.S. senator or president of the United States.”
A month into Obama’s presidency, Holder told reporters that the administration planned to follow through on Obama’s campaign promise to reinstitute the ban on the sale of assault weapons, which expired in 2004.
At the White House, Emanuel was irate. Holder’s comments agitated the powerful National Rifle Association and pro-gun lawmakers, including many Democrats whose support Obama would need to push health-care overhaul and the rest of his domestic agenda.
Emanuel pounded his desk and cursed Holder, saying the attorney general needed to “shut the [expletive] up,” according to “Kill or Capture,” a book by journalist Daniel Klaidman. Emanuel did not respond to questions about the incident; multiple former administration officials confirmed Klaidman’s account.
Meanwhile, Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist who had been urging the White House not to pursue gun-control measures, said he called the office of senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett after hearing what Holder had said. Feldman said he asked one of Jarrett’s deputies, “You guys have already given up on having a second term?”
The odds of passing gun-
control legislation dimmed further after Republicans took control of the House two years ago, fueled by conservatives aligned with the tea party movement, many of them backed by the NRA. At that point, said Phil Schiliro, Obama’s former legislative affairs director, “the chances of getting any gun reform legislation passed in Congress was less than 1 percent — or was nonexistent.”
Still, Holder maintained his focus on the gun-control issue, according to former administration officials. The attorney general’s views were shaped in part by his days as a judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia and earlier as the U.S. attorney for the District during a time when soaring gun violence was killing hundreds of young people.
One former official described Holder’s strategy as “push, push, push.”
In the early years of the administration, mass shootings came and went without sparking a serious debate about gun safety.
“There was no constituency,” said Matt Miller, a former Holder spokesman. If the White House had pursued gun laws, he added, “they would have been beating their heads against the wall.”
The January 2011 shooting of Giffords and 18 others at a supermarket meet-and-greet in Tucson seemed to offer the prospect of change.
Two months after the shooting, which killed six, Obama wrote in an op-ed in the Arizona Daily Star that he wanted “sound and effective steps that will actually keep those irresponsible, law-breaking few from getting their hands on a gun in the first place.”
Obama tasked Holder and senior Justice Department officials with devising recommendations aimed at preventing mass shootings.
Christopher Schroeder, who was the head of the Office of Legal Policy at the time, led the effort. His team met with police chiefs, gun-control advocates, firearms dealers, gun manufacturers and other stakeholders. The NRA declined to take part.
Schroeder’s group made several recommendations, including steps to make background checks for gun purchases more thorough and complete.
“There was a broad consensus,” Schroeder said. “We all agreed we could improve the background-check system. We devoted our energy to that.”
But at the White House and in Congress, there was no political will. The idea of tougher gun laws was put on hold, according to administration officials.
Then came Dec. 14, when shock over the rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown rippled across the nation. Adam Lanza, 20, armed with semiautomatic weapons, killed his mother at home and then opened fire at the school before killing himself.
Two days after the shooting, the president spoke at an interfaith memorial service in Newtown. He vowed to use “whatever power this office holds” to enact changes.
That night, Maisch and other survivors of the Tucson shooting were watching Obama’s speech from a restaurant in Lower Manhattan. Victims from mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., and Oak Creek, Wis., as well as the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, joined them. They were in New York for a news conference the next day with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I), a leading gun-
As they watched Obama promising to take action, members of the group reached underneath the table and held hands. Some began to cry.
“We said it to each other afterwards — we truly feel like this is the tipping point,” said Pam Simon, a former Giffords aide who was shot in the chest during the Tucson attack. “The president was in need of political will.”
Peter Slevin in Chicago contributed to this report.