Assault Weapons Ban: Is Obama Softening His Position On Guns?

President Obama urged supporters of gun control to "do a little more listening" to gun rights supporters in a recent interview with The New Republic, saying he was "very explicit about believing that the Second Amendment was important" and emphasizing his "profound respect" for hunting.

"I think those who dismiss [the tradition of hunting] out of hand make a big mistake," the president said. "Part of being able to move this forward is understanding the reality of guns in urban areas are very different from the realities of guns in rural areas. And if you grew up and your dad gave you a hunting rifle when you were ten, and you went out and spent the day with him and your uncles, and that became part of your family's traditions, you can see why you'd be pretty protective of that."

"So it's trying to bridge those gaps that I think is going to be part of the biggest task over the next several months. And that means that advocates of gun control have to do a little more listening than they do sometimes," he concluded.

In December, a gunman with two pistols and a semiautomatic rifle killed 20 children and six teachers as well as self at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, spurring a renewed (and some would say long overdue) debate on the role of guns in society. Gun rights advocates have insisted that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to carry a firearm – a right backed by the Supreme Court – but many advocates of tighter gun regulation have disputed whether that right means unrestricted access to many kinds of military-style rifles such as those used at Sandy Hook and other recent massacres.

While the president supports a renewed and strengthened version of the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, he has not proposed it directly nor spent a large amount of time or political capital shaping that difficult fight. Vice President Joe Biden was notably reticent regarding the gun ban during a two-hour roundtable with White House and Virginia officials, hinting the administration may consider pushing any assault weapons restrictions to a lower priority.

In fact, Biden went so far as to comment on Thursday, "more people out there get shot with a Glock that has cartridges in a [high-capacity magazine] … I'm much less concerned, quite frankly, with what you'd call an 'assault weapon' than I am with magazines, and the number of rounds that can be held in a magazine," a reference to the less politically contentious proposal to restrict firearm magazine capacity to 10 rounds or less.

In addition to that measure, the White House has focused on proposing a series of anti-gun-violence executive orders which include increased funding for police in schools, directing government scientists at the CDC to study firearms-related deaths, and more stringent enforcement of laws already on the books. They also strongly back one of the more likely proposals to pass the GOP-dominated House of Representatives: universal, mandatory background checks for all gun purchases.

The president's comments in the interview may reflect his administration's increasingly clear strategy: introduce bold, but politically unrealistic goals into the mainstream discourse, then fight for strong gains on a more moderate position. As The New Republic comments, "compromise was a conversation for the distant future," one which the President would "entertain only after making a muscular argument and creating the political space for his ideas." This strategy, the administration hopes, could result in some strong short-term gains such as passing universal background check legislation, while laying the groundwork for future efforts on gun control.

Obama picked an opportune time to portray a more moderate stance on gun rights. The first Congressional hearing on gun control is scheduled to launch on Wednesday, January 30, and will feature personalities from both the hard-right pro-gun absolutist crowd such as NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre and from the anti-gun lobby, including Mark Kelly. LaPierre has made waves by taking completely uncompromising stances on gun rights since the Newtown shootings, while Kelly is the husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head by a rampage killer in 2010.

When the congressional circus kicks into motion, expect President Obama to fight for the magazine restrictions, universal background checks, and the preparedness and information-sharing measures in his proposals - but not necessarily the assault weapons ban.