Obama extends olive branch in gun control debate

By Peter Wallsten and Perry Bacon Jr.
Tuesday, March 15, 2011; 11:37 AM

Two months after the shooting rampage in Tucson renewed a debate over gun violence, President Obama is still searching for a way to take on the issue without touching off a battle with the powerful gun-rights lobby.

Gun control advocates and some congressional Democrats are pushing for legislation that would require gun sellers, even those at gun shows, to conduct background checks and would toughen data-reporting requirements.

But administration officials have concluded that Obama would probably lose any legislative fight against the National Rifle Association. So, they are taking a different approach: Inviting the NRA to sit down for a chat.

Administration officials said Monday that the Justice Department will ask NRA officials to participate in closed-door meetings in the coming weeks to explore a path forward.

It is not clear whether the path will lead anywhere. Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president, rejected the idea. In an interview, he accused the White House of "trying to fog the issue until after the 2012 elections."

Pointing to a dissenting vote cast by Obama Supreme Court appointee Sonia Sotomayor, who opposed the high court's 2010 ruling affirming the right to bear arms, LaPierre asked: "Why should I sit down with a group of people who have spent their life fighting the Second Amendment?"

The administration's olive branch, and LaPierre's rejection of it, underscores the touchiness of gun politics, particularly for a Democratic president looking to win favor with pro-gun independent voters as he undertakes his reelection campaign.

The talks with the NRA would be part of a series of meetings with advocates on all sides, administration officials said. On Tuesday afternoon, top Justice aides will meet with gun control supporters.

Administration officials said any proposed legislation would be difficult to pass given the NRA's influence on Capitol Hill. But they said some potential changes might not require new laws, such as enhancing the National Instant Criminal Background Check System with improved data from states and fostering greater coordination among government agencies that might have information about prospective gun purchasers.

In a Sunday op-ed in Tucson's Arizona Daily Star, Obama repeatedly referred to Jared Lee Loughner, the alleged Tucson gunman, saying "a man our Army rejected as unfit for service; a man one of our colleges deemed too unstable for studies; a man apparently bent on violence, was able to walk into a store and buy a gun."

Obama used the op-ed to call for "instant, accurate, comprehensive and consistent system for background checks" and better record-keeping to "stop the wrong people from getting their hands on a gun."

Gun control advocates have grown more vocal in pushing Obama to act since the January shootings. Gun control groups had hoped that Obama would make stricter gun control a priority and perhaps include the topic in his State of the Union speech.

But Obama has approached gun issues carefully since his 2008 campaign, when he portrayed himself to swing voters as an ally of the Second Amendment - and he has continued to do so.

This month, when a Mexican reporter asked him at a news conference about whether U.S. gun laws contribute to the flow of weapons into Mexico's drug wars, the president responded: "I believe in the Second Amendment. It does provide for Americans the right to bear arms for their protection, for their safety, for hunting, for a wide range of uses."

Even in Sunday's op-ed, Obama sought credit for signing a law allowing people to carry guns in national parks and wildlife refuges. He hailed the country's "strong tradition of gun ownership that's handed from generation to generation," saying his administration "has not curtailed the rights of gun owners - it has expanded them."

Among those pressuring Obama to act is New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has teamed up with other city chiefs to form Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Bloomberg is scheduled to be in Washington on Tuesday to endorse a House bill that, like one being sponsored by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), would increase penalties on states with poor records of reporting data to the national criminal background check system and require all gun sellers to perform checks on customers.

Mark Glaze, the group's director, said Obama is realizing "that the burden a background check imposes is almost zero, and the return on investment is exceptionally high."

LaPierre said he favored much of what Obama endorsed in his op-ed, but he charged that the president was targeting gun ownership for political reasons rather than addressing the "underlying issue" of "madmen in the streets." Then, as if seeking to distance himself as much as possible from Obama, LaPierre sent a scathing letter to the president accusing him of paying "mere lip service" to the Second Amendment.

"His base is shrieking for him to do something," La Pierre said.

The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), signaled Monday that any legislative proposal is not likely to survive. Smith, in a written statement, said Obama's call to improve the background check system "doesn't mean new laws are needed, but rather that the laws already on the books must be fully and effectively enforced."

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