WASHINGTON – The Republican presidential candidates leave little doubt about where they stand on gun rights.
Rick Perry and Rick Santorum go pheasant hunting and give interviews before heading out. Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain speak to the National Rifle Association convention. Michele Bachmann tells People magazine she wants to teach her daughters how to shoot because women need to be able to protect themselves. Mitt Romney, after backing some gun control measures in Massachusetts, now presents himself as a strong Second Amendment supporter.
President Barack Obama, on the other hand, is virtually silent on the issue.
He has hardly addressed it since a couple months after the January assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz., when he promised to develop new steps on gun safety in response. He still has failed to do so, even as Tucson survivors came to Capitol Hill last week to push for action to close loopholes in the background check system.
Democrats have learned the hard way that embracing gun control can be terrible politics, and the 2012 presidential election is shaping up to underscore just how delicate the issue can be. With the election likely to be decided largely by states where hunting is a popular pastime, like Missouri, Ohio or Pennsylvania, candidates of both parties want to win over gun owners, not alienate them.
For Republicans, that means emphasizing their pro-gun credentials. But for Obama and the Democrats, the approach is trickier.
Obama's history in support of strict gun control measures prior to becoming president makes it difficult for him to claim he's a Second Amendment champion, even though he signed a bill allowing people to take loaded guns into national parks. At the same time, he's apparently decided that his record backing gun safety is nothing to boast of, either, perhaps because of the power of the gun lobby and their opposition to anything smacking of gun control.
The result is that while Republicans are more than happy to talk up their support for gun rights, Obama may barely be heard from on the issue at all.
"Gun control is a fight that the administration is not willing to pick. They're not likely to win it," said Harry Wilson, author of a book on gun politics and director of the Institute for Policy and Opinion Research at Roanoke College in Virginia. "They certainly would not win it in Congress, and it's not likely to be a winner at the polls. ... It comes down to one pretty simple word: Politics."
Administration officials say they are working to develop the gun safety measures promised after the Giffords shooting, and they say have taken steps to improve the background check system. White House spokesman Matt Lehrich says the White House goal is to "protect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens while keeping guns out of the hands of those who shouldn't have them under existing law."
But when it comes to guns and politics, Democrats haven't forgotten what happened in 1994. That year, President Bill Clinton was pushing for passage of a landmark crime bill featuring a ban on assault weapons, and then-House Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash., twisted Democrats' arms to get it through the House. Come November, Democrats suffered widespread election losses and lost control of the House and the Senate. Foley was among those defeated, and Clinton and others credited the NRA's campaigning with a big role in the outcome. And when the assault weapons ban came up for congressional reauthorization in 2004, it failed.
Given that history, the NRA expects to see Obama treading carefully on guns through 2012.
"It's bad politics to be on the wrong side of the Second Amendment at election time," said Wayne LaPierre, NRA executive vice president. "They're trying to fog the issue through the 2012 election and deceive gun owners into thinking he's something he's not, which is pro-Second Amendment."
For gun control advocates, it adds up to frustration with Obama and the Democrats. The group Mayors Against Illegal Guns argues that polling shows voters support certain gun safety measures like stronger background checks -- although a recent Gallup poll also finds more support for enforcing current laws than for passing new ones.
"Good policy here is good politics," said John Feinblatt, an adviser to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is a co-chair of the mayors' group. "Unfortunately, for too long the administration has bought the conventional wisdom" that gun control is bad politics.
But the NRA outspends gun-control groups by wide margins, and analysts say that when it comes time to vote, the gun issue is more likely to motivate gun rights activists than gun control supporters.
Since becoming president, Obama has been extremely cautious on the issue. In his 2004 Senate race, for example, Obama said it was a "scandal" that then-President George W. Bush didn't force renewal of the assault weapons ban. But Obama himself has done nothing to promote that issue since becoming president.
Obama's commitment to act on gun safety may also be complicated by an unrelated controversy over a Justice Department program aimed at stanching gun trafficking into Mexico. The government lost track of numerous weapons in connection with the program.
Obama has vowed to figure out what went wrong with the operation and make sure it's corrected, but with Republicans seizing on the issue to attack the White House, the politics around taking action on guns hasn't gotten any easier.
So for now, supporters who hoped to see Obama adopt a stronger stance on guns and act in the wake of the Giffords shooting look like they're going to be disappointed. "We haven't given up hope," said Dennis Henigan, acting president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, "but our impatience is growing with each passing day."