Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 28 August 2014

White House rivals avoid gun debate

During his 2008 presidential campaign Barack Obama called for reinstating a federal ban on assault weapons (AP/Susan Walsh)

The shooting that killed 12 people at a Colorado cinema has sidetracked the US presidential race but both Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney stayed away from the polarising topic of gun control.

The massacre obliged both candidates to cast aside the increasingly bitter tone of the race and reach for a rare moment of American harmony. Mr Obama and Mr Romney swiftly stripped their day of overt campaigning that surely would have seemed crass given the enormity of the tragedy.

"There are going to be other days for politics," Mr Obama said from one key electoral state, Florida. From another one, New Hampshire, Mr Romney said much the same.

"This is a time for each of us to look into our hearts and remember how much we love one another, and how much we love and how much we care for our great country," Mr Romney said at a podium stripped of campaign paraphernalia, in front of a large American flag.

Amid their calls for unity and prayer, neither candidate said anything of gun control, an issue that has been all but absent from the campaign debate this year. Both men have shifted with the times, moving away from stances that favoured tougher gun control laws.

But the issue may rise anew. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, a gun control advocate, said, "You know, soothing words are nice, but maybe it's time that the two people who want to be president of the United States stand up and tell us what they are going to do about it."

Twenty years ago, polls showed that a substantial majority of Americans - nearly 80% in 1990 - supported stricter limits on guns. Now Americans appear evenly divided between those who want tougher restrictions and those who want to stick with current laws.

Gun rights groups are a powerful lobby in the United States, where easy access to guns is a way of life in many of the more conservative and rural areas. The right to bear arms is guaranteed by the US Constitution, alongside such basic rights as free speech and freedom of religion.

During his 2008 presidential campaign Mr Obama called for reinstating a federal ban on assault weapons that began during the administration of former president Bill Clinton and expired under George Bush. But since his election he has not tried to get that done or pushed other gun control proposals. The powerful National Rifle Association has attacked Mr Obama as an anti-gun zealot nonetheless.

Following last year's killing of six people and the wounding of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona, Mr Obama called for a series of steps to "keep those irresponsible, law-breaking few from getting their hands on a gun in the first place". Among those steps was a better background check system. And White House spokesman Jay Carney said yesterday that the system had improved. But the administration has offered no legislation or detailed updates about how it is pursuing the president's previous promises.

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