Published November 01, 2012
President Obama may have been tossing a bone to his base, but one answer in the second presidential debate could come back to haunt him with a key voter group -- gun owners.
When asked what the administration has done or plans to do to limit assault weapons at the Oct. 16 debate, Obama said part of the solution to gun violence "is seeing if we can get an assault weapons ban reintroduced."
That comment caught fire with gun owners.
"If there are undecided voters who put the Second Amendment as their first issue, then certainly the president's remark about bringing back any type of gun ban is going to chase away those voters," said Joe Eaton, a regional coordinator with the Buckeye Firearms Association in Ohio.
One of those is independent voter Robert Brewer from Cincinnati.
When he heard the president's renewed support for an assault weapons ban, Brewer said, "I was thinking I was born in a country (where) I had a right to keep and bear arms and I don't know what he's talking about. It goes against the Constitution, which gives me the right to keep and bear arms and that right shall not be infringed."
Pro-gun activists never considered President Obama an ally, after he campaigned in favor of such a gun ban in 2008. Once in the White House, however, Obama did not pursue it. After the mass shooting in Colorado, Obama aides said that the president supports the ban that expired in 2004. But the president had not called for reinstating it until the recent debate.
In Colorado, another important battleground state, Rich Wyatt heard the president loud and clear.
"He wants to do something that is complete violation of our Second Amendment rights and that's going to hurt him when it comes to swing states like Colorado," said Wyatt, owner of the Gunsmoke gun store outside of Denver.
While gun owners may not consider Obama their friend on firearms issues, legislatively he hasn't done anything serious to hurt them. His comment, though, could wake a sleeping giant in a few key places.
Nationwide, there are 90 million gun owners in the U.S., but in the eight critical swing states, already this year more than 2.1 million potential voters bought guns.
Some bought for personal protection, others for target shooting. But in those eight states -- Colorado, Iowa, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin -- 2 million hold hunting licenses. That includes 413,710 in Ohio, and 288,086 in Colorado, two states critical to the president's re-election.
"I am definitely concerned," said new mother Stephanie Thomas, as her baby was sleeping in a carrier on a gun display case inside Target World, an Ohio gun shop. "I wanted to come in and make my purchase before the election."
Referring to the president's proposed ban, she said, "It makes me nervous. I have three children and a home to protect."
Thomas bought a shotgun and a full case of ammo.
Passed under a Democrat-controlled Congress in 1994, the assault weapons ban expired in 2004. Filled with loopholes, critics say it did little to reduce gun violence, since most crimes are committed with hand guns, not bulky rifles with long stocks and barrels.
Used mostly for hunting and target shooting, the AK-47 and AR-15, which is a civilian version of the U.S. military issue M16, these so-called assault rifles are used in fewer than 1 percent of all violent crimes in the U.S., according to studies based on Justice Department data. And despite the negative publicity surrounding these weapons, the rate of gun-related murder and manslaughter fell 11 percent from 2008 to 2010, according to federal statistics.
However, with a few exceptions, congressional Democrats support background checks at gun shows, and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines like the ones used in Aurora, Colo. Laxer gun laws, they argue, mean more homicides and suicides. They point to Ohio, where according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the firearm homicide rate now exceeds that of California. The campaign claims Ohio's firearm homicide rate surged after the Buckeye State passed a concealed-carry law allowing many gun owners to obtain a concealed-carry permit.
In the second debate, Obama said: "I also share your belief that weapons that were designed for soldiers in war theatres don't belong on our streets." He added, "What I want is a comprehensive strategy, part of it is seeing if we get automatic weapons that kill folks in amazing numbers out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill."
However, the president's critics say assault weapons do not differ materially from non-military style firearms. In both cases, each weapon fires one bullet for each pull of the trigger.
Anti-gun activists, though, point to assault rifles' large magazines and their ability to hold more than 10 bullets.
After the movie theater massacre in Aurora this past July, gun control advocate and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg called on both Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney to address how they would try to curb gun violence. Bloomberg at the time called on the White House to back a new assault weapons ban.
"Somebody's got to do something about this, and this requires particularly in a presidential year, the candidates for president of the United States to stand up and once and for all say ... 'It's time for this country to do something'," Bloomberg told CBS' "Face the Nation" in July.
Despite the president's desire to ban certain firearms, Congress is unlikely to adopt any meaningful gun controls. However, the courts are another matter. Both recent Supreme Court rulings affirming an individuals' right to own a firearm were 5-4 decisions. Additional cases limiting gun rights are making their way through the lower federal courts, and many gun experts say the next battleground for the Second Amendment is back at the Supreme Court.
In response to Obama's debate comments, the National Rifle Association came out with a new ad. It warns, "Obama put two justices on the Supreme Court who threaten our right to self-defense. Defend freedom, defeat Obama."
Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy, who typically land on the pro-Second Amendment side of the fence, are 76. If either is replaced by an anti-gun successor, pro-gun activists fear their rights will erode.
"What worries me the most about President Obama getting re-elected is at that point we'll see the real true Barack Obama," Wyatt said.