Jay Carney’s statement in the wake of the Aurora murders was welcome. The president, Carney said:
believes we need to take steps that protect Second Amendment rights of the American people but that ensure that we are not allowing weapons into the hands of individuals who should not, by existing law, obtain those weapons. There are a number of steps that have been taken and a number of others that can be taken to accomplish that goal. The president’s view is that we can take steps to keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have them under existing law.
But, if true, this certainly signals a change from previous behavior. Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, has insisted since he took office that the administration wished to restore the expired assault weapons ban. At a press conference in 2009, Holder said that “there are just a few gun-related changes that we would like to make, and among them would be to reinstitute the ban on the sale of assault weapons.” The Attorney General reiterated his commitment to this position in testimony to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee as recently as February of this year:
This administration has consistently favored the reinstitution of the assault weapons ban. It is something that we think was useful in the past with regard to the reduction that we’ve seen in crime, and certainly would have a positive impact on our relationship and the crime situation in Mexico.
Moreover, the administration’s claim that it is focused on enforcement doesn’t stand up to examination of the federal court statistics. As a reader writes,
the Obama administration has consistently and significantly fallen off the federal firearms prosecution numbers of the Bush administration. Prosecution of prohibited persons (e.g., felon-in-possession crimes, possession by aliens, mental incompetents) fell consistently year after year since 2008 — down 12% overall through the 2011 court statistics. Even worse, the prosecution of use of guns in commission of a violent crime or drug offense has fallen even more – down 19% compared to 2008. These two categories of enforcement are supported by both gun rights advocates and gun control supporters, so it makes little sense as to why the administration would deemphasize such enforcement, unless aspects of the laws in question (e.g., disqualification of felons and aliens from gun rights, mandatory minimum sentences) are disfavored by the administration or the leadership of DOJ.
The administration’s reluctance to move on the issue is a positive demonstration both of how comprehensively the gun argument has been won in the last twenty years and of how potentially toxic the subject could be for Obama in an election year. But those with a principled commitment to the right to bear arms should nonetheless take the claim with a pinch of salt; those who follow these debates will know how quickly “more flexibility” can shift the focus from enforcing “existing law” to pushing new and restrictive measures.