Obama and Romney Debate Gun Control, Gingerly

Last week's mass shooting in Aurora has put the gun issue in the spotlight, and now both presidential candidates are addressing it.

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In the wake of last week's movie-theater massacre in Colorado, those who hoped for an ensuing debate over gun control weren't optimistic. After all, nothing changed in the wake of Virginia Tech, Tucson, or other recent mass shootings. Washington is in the grip of an unofficial truce on the issue thanks to the outsize clout of the National Rifle Association and the presence in Congress of a lot of gun-friendly red-state Democrats, and an election year only intensifies the pressure on politicians not to make any waves. So it was no surprise that, even as vocal gun-control advocate Michael Bloomberg was calling to reopen the subject, both President Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney, focused their responses to the tragedy on keeping politics out of it.

But now that the shooting is a few days behind us, Romney and Obama have both made more substantive statements about what bearing it should have on the gun-control debate. Here's Romney, in an interview with NBC News:

Well, this person shouldn't have had any kind of weapons and bombs and other devices, and it was illegal for him to have many of those things already. But he had them. And so we can sometimes hope that just changing the law will make all bad things go away. It won't. Changing the heart of the American people may well be what's essential, to improve the lots of the American people.

And here's Obama, speaking to the National Urban League in New Orleans:

I, like most Americans, believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual the right to bear arms. And we recognize the traditions of gun ownership that passed on from generation to generation -- that hunting and shooting are part of a cherished national heritage. But I also believe that a lot of gun owners would agree that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of criminals -- that they belong on the battlefield of war, not on the streets of our cities. I believe the majority of gun owners would agree that we should do everything possible to prevent criminals and fugitives from purchasing weapons; that we should check someone's criminal record before they can check out a gun seller; that a mentally unbalanced individual should not be able to get his hands on a gun so easily. These steps shouldn't be controversial. They should be common sense.

Each of these statements is problematic in its own way. Romney claims Aurora shooter James Holmes broke the law to acquire the weapons he used, but so far, there's no proof that's the case. As ThinkProgress noted, Holmes appears to have purchased his guns, ammunition, body armor and other gear legally. Meanwhile, Obama's view of the proper place for AK-47s might surprise the U.S. military, which does not use them on the battlefield; the assault rifle currently issued to soldiers is the M-4, though the AK is wielded by other fighting forces around the globe. Holmes reportedly used a variation on an older military rifle, the M-16. The background checks Obama suggests also wouldn't have snared Holmes, who does not appear to have had a criminal or mental-illness history.

But at least they're talking about it. For the perennially ignored advocates of gun control, just having the debate is progress.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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