By James V. Grimaldi and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 3:20 PM
White House officials on Wednesday attempted to quell criticism that President Obama dodged a national debate over guns in his State of the Union address and announced that the president would address the issue soon.
But aides sidestepped questions about when Obama will talk about federal firearms policy or what he would say.
"I wouldn't rule out that at some point the president talks about the issues surrounding gun violence," Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said aboard Air Force One on the way to an event with Obama in Wisconsin. "I don't have a timetable or, obviously, what he would say."
As president, Obama has never delivered substantive remarks on gun policy, one of the most volatile and divisive domestic issues, out of fear of roiling swing voters in rural areas, the Midwest and the South.
But after 19 people were shot in Tucson on Jan. 8, gun-control groups and some lawmakers urged Obama to wade into the issue. Advocates for stricter gun laws expressed dismay that Obama avoided the topic in a national address delivered less than three weeks after the rampage.
Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, criticized the president for beginning the State of the Union adderss by talking about the dreams of a 9-year-old girl slain in Tucson "without talking about the gun violence that destroyed those dreams."
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who runs a gun-control group, said Obama "missed an opportunity to bring the country together on an issue that has support among the vast majority of Americans: fixing the nation's broken background-check system that is designed to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people."
The National Rifle Association, one of the most influential lobbying groups in Congress, opposes the measures in Obama's 2008 platform, including reinstating the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004, as well as other proposals since Tucson.
In an e-mail to members Tuesday night, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said, "Once again, you and your freedoms are being blamed for the acts of a deranged madman, who sent signal after signal that he was dangerous.
"You and I can handle the hate aimed at us," LaPierre said, adding that the NRA was "going to have a tough time fighting all the legislative fights this vitriol has spawned."
The NRA criticized Rep. Carolyn McCarthy's (D-N.Y.) bill reinstating a part of the 1994-2002 ban - a limit on high-capacity magazines. Accused Arizona gunman Jared Lee Loughner had loaded his Glock 19 with a 30-round magazine. McCarthy's bill would ban possession, import or sale of any high-capacity magazine that holds more than 10 rounds.
Talk of a separate speech emerged after the State of the Union. CNN's Wolf Blitzer, one of the network anchors who attended a private luncheon with Obama on Tuesday, said after Tuesday's speech that there would be a separate address. "We're told he will deliver a speech in the coming weeks specifically on guns," Blitzer said.
NBC's Brian Williams asked Obama adviser David Plouffe whether guns would be addressed, and Plouffe said it would be at a "different venue, different speech, later date."
Plouffe also said, "The president has been clear about his position on the assault weapons ban."
Some Obama supporters, however, urged him against taking up the assault weapons ban for fear that it would antagonize rural voters. Ray Schoenke, a former Washington Redskins player who founded American Hunters and Shooters Association, a moderate gun-rights group that backed Obama, said the president should instead examine the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
"I would promote background checks versus trying to reinstall the assault weapons ban," Schoenke said.
In the 2008 campaign, Obama's platform called for stricter gun laws. But Obama's campaign went out of its way to indicate that he would not aggressively pursue gun control. He enlisted Schoenke's moderate gun-rights group to reassure rural voters that he wouldn't ban firearms.
And among his only statements on the issue in 2008 was his endorsement of a Supreme Court decision to strike down D.C.'s handgun law.
Obama's silence is hardly surprising. Former president Bill Clinton attributes some of the party's defeat in 1994 to gun control. After 2000, when then-Vice President Al Gore lost states such as Tennessee as he espoused his support for gun control, Democrats completely abandoned the issue.