Obama indicates varied expectations on gun laws

Michael D. Shear / New York Times News Service /


MINNEAPOLIS — President Barack Obama traveled to the nation’s heartland Monday to press his case for tougher national gun laws, even as he appeared to acknowledge that expanded background checks on gun sales were far more likely to pass Congress than a ban on military-style assault weapons.

In a city once called “Murderapolis” for its homicide rate in the 1990s, the president cited successful gun violence prevention efforts here as evidence that new national laws are needed to reduce the number of shootings across the country.

“The only way we can reduce gun violence in this country is if the American people decide it’s important,” Obama said, standing in front of a sea of police officers and sheriff’s deputies at the Minneapolis Police Department Special Operations Center.

Obama renewed his call for Congress to pass a series of measures, including a ban on the manufacture and sale of new assault weapons, limits on high-capacity magazines and an expansion of the criminal background checks that currently covers only about 60 percent of gun sales.

But he openly demonstrated different expectations for the measures as Washington wages a bitterly divisive debate over the role of guns in society.

Obama declared “universal background checks” to be supported by a “vast majority of Americans” and called for their quick passage in Congress. “There’s no reason why we can’t get that done,” he told the gathering of law enforcement officials.

But of the potential for a new assault weapons ban, the president said only that it “deserves a vote in Congress because weapons of war have no place on our streets.”

On Monday, White House aides again said the president was still pushing for the three measures, along with changes to the nation’s mental health system. But Obama, top lawmakers in Congress and gun control advocacy groups appear nervous about the political chances of the assault weapons ban and eager to push for a better background check system.

“There definitely seems to be a significant convergence around the idea of universal background checks,” said Dan Gross, the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, though he added: “I think there is still a significant outcry on the part of the American public to talk about assault weapons.”

On Sunday, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, said he might not even personally support an assault weapons ban, though he promised that senators would get a chance to vote on it. During the Super Bowl on Sunday, an important gun-control group broadcast a television advertisement in Washington focused exclusively on pushing for better background checks.

The ad, from Mayors Against Illegal Guns, noted that the National Rifle Association once supported such checks. The ad concludes with a child saying, “America can do this. For us. Please.”

The focus on background checks reflects a broad political calculation in Washington that there is more public support for requiring the checks than for limits on guns and ammunition. A recent New York Times/CBS News survey found that 92 percent of those polled supported broader background checks.

The same survey found that 53 percent supported a ban on some semiautomatic weapons, and that 63 percent would support limits on magazines.

Some advocates of tougher gun laws say that Obama and his allies in Congress should not give up on pushing for all three measures, regardless of the opposition that the measures are likely to face from the NRA and other gun rights groups.

R. T. Rybak Jr., the mayor of Minneapolis, mocked politicians in Washington who are unwilling to support an assault weapons ban.

“Oh, it’s not going to pass,” Rybak said. “Well, guess what? People are dying out here, and I’m not satisfied with the lame kind of response that we’ve gotten from some of the people in Washington who look at this like some kind of game.”

Rybak, a Democrat, said he would not be satisfied by a compromise on gun control measures that did not address assault weapons and focused only on background checks.

“I don’t think any of us should accept anything other than complete effort and knocking off the political wimpsmanship that I think too often takes place around these issues,” he said. “Get a spine. Get a backbone, because people are losing their lives.”

In the 1990s, Minneapolis experienced an explosion of drug- and gang-related violence, which led to a series of local measures aimed at reducing gun violence that has brought down the city’s murder rate.

The city has developed programs aimed at rehabilitation for young people who have committed violent crimes. And its leaders are pushing for faster and more comprehensive state background checks for people buying guns.