WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will not push for stricter gun laws this election year, the White House said Thursday, one day after his impassioned remarks about the need to keep assault weapons off the streets suggested he may plunge into that political fight and challenge Congress to act.
Instead, Obama’s stand on the government’s role ended up right where it was after the mass shooting in Colorado last week: Enforce existing law better.
That is same view held by his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, as both reach for broader and more politically appealing ways to keep guns away from killers.
Obama still wants Congress to reinstitute a federal ban on military-style assault weapons that lapsed years ago, his spokesman Jay Carney said. But the president is not and has not been pushing for that ban, a nod to the politics of gun control.
There is no interest among many lawmakers of both parties to take on the divisive matter. Especially not with an election in just over 100 days.
Sealing the matter, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday the Senate’s schedule is too packed to even have a debate on gun control.
Asked if the Senate might debate the issue next year, Reid said, “Nice try.”
Public opinion has shifted away from tighter gun control. Twenty years ago, polls showed that a substantial majority supported stricter limits on guns. Now Americans appear evenly divided. Nearly every statement on the matter from Romney and Obama includes reminders that they stand by the Second Amendment.
From the White House, Carney said: “There are things that we can do short of legislation and short of gun laws.”
The lack of legislation reflects that reality, too: Police say laws and background checks are often futile in keeping someone with horrifying intent from executing a massacre. Authorities say the suspect in the Aurora, Colo., shootings broke no laws when he purchased the guns he is accused of using, and he passed the required background checks.
Obama and his team “gain nothing politically, and they just don’t have the horsepower to pass anything,” said William Vizzard, professor emeritus of criminal justice at California State University, Sacramento, and an author on gun control politics. “And then the problem is trying to craft a law that would really do something.”
Yet at least one prominent gun control group sought Thursday to pressure Obama and Romney to offer voters concrete plans. The group’s president, Dan Gross, said words alone were not enough in a nation in which 32 people are killed by guns each day. He specifically challenged Obama to move beyond the rhetoric.
“The president said very similar things in his last campaign,” said Gross, head of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “A speech is not a plan. An endorsement of a measure is not a solution.”
It was Obama who stirred the issue in speaking Wednesday night to the National Urban League, a civil rights organization whose mission is to help black Americans secure economic opportunity and power.
In his most extensive remarks on guns since the Colorado shooting left 12 dead and dozens wounded, Obama said steps to reduce violence have been opposed by Congress and “we should leave no stone unturned” in the national imperative of keeping young people safe.
And he got specific on assault-style weapons. “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,” he said.
Obama’s message was comprehensive, but he ultimately did not promise anything specific. He spoke of community policing strategies and mental health centers, or programs that steer people away into safe activities instead of gang violence, of ensuring that parents and teachers step in to fill a hole in a child’s heart “that government alone cannot fill.”
Romney, in an interview Thursday with CNN, said new laws won’t help. He cited the case of Timothy McVeigh, who was convicted and put to death for the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people. McVeigh used fertilizer in constructing his bomb.
“I think that the effort to continue to look for some law to somehow make violence go away is missing the point,” Romney said. “The real point has to relate to individuals that are deranged and distressed, and to find them and help them and to keep them from carrying out terrible acts.”
The ban on assault weapons that became law in 1994, during President Bill Clinton’s first term, contributed to the Democrats’ loss of Congress that year. It expired during George W. Bush’s presidency in 2004.
The ban would have prevented the Colorado shooting suspect, James Holmes, from legally buying one of the four firearms police found on him and in his car, an assault rifle. It also would have prevented him from buying new high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Vizzard, the gun control scholar, said there are legislative ways to reduce gun violence, particularly over a longer term of 20 to 30 years. But with an estimated 300 million guns in the United States, he said, Obama is right that “the things that have the most impact are cultural” and that shape the behavior of young people.
Obama once got into his own firestorm during the 2008 presidential race by saying some bitter small-town residents cling to guns and religion for solace. This time, Vizzard said, the president will not give any material to critics who believe he is out to strip their gun rights.
“He’s a cagey guy,” Vizzard said. “He’s just not going to do it.”
Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn, Josh Lederman, Laurie Kellman and Alan Fram contributed to this story.