For President Obama, gun rights could be the classic example of the disjuncture between campaigning and governing. More aggressive gun regulation, like reinstating the assault-weapons ban, was a bit of liberal orthodoxy that any standard bearer of the Democratic Party could embrace. In 2008 his campaign’s official position was to bring back the federal ban, which had lapsed in 2004, and make it permanent.
But in truth, there were signs even then that gun control wasn’t likely to emerge as a high priority in an Obama administration. The candidate’s support for gun legislation was understated—declarations on his website rather than a regular part of his stump speech.
Obama campaigned as a transformational figure who wanted to move the country beyond the culture wars. As the first black presidential nominee with an exotic-sounding name, it was easy enough to see why. When a blogger caught him on tape at a fundraiser opining about why many Americans “cling to their guns and religion,” it caused a political kerfuffle, raising questions about whether he could win over enough working-class white voters to defeat Hillary Clinton.
As the 2008 campaign wore on, Obama was far more likely to offer words of reassurance to gun enthusiasts than tout his views on limiting access to weapons. Typical were his remarks at a September rally in Lebanon, Va.: “You’ve heard it here; I’m on television, so everybody knows it. I believe in the Second Amendment. I believe in people’s lawful right to bear arms. I will not take your shotgun away. I will not take your rifle away. I will not take your handgun away.” Obama talked about supporting “common-sense gun safety laws,” but he didn’t mention the assault-weapons ban.
After the election, Obama inherited an economic crisis of staggering proportions. As the White House confronted epic decisions, including a stimulus bill, bailing out the banks and whether to rescue the auto industry, officials were desperate to avoid controversial issues that could—in their view—squander their precious political capital. But Eric Holder Jr., the new attorney general, had not gotten the message. At a press conference in which he was announcing a major drug bust against a Mexican cartel, Holder stumbled into the politics of guns. Asked about the administration’s position on regulating weapons, Holder said, “Well, as President Obama indicated during the campaign, there are just a few gun-related changes that we would like to make, and among them would be to reinstitute the ban on assault weapons.” Holder, obliquely acknowledging that the president had a lot on his plate, was careful to add a cautionary note about how quickly the White House would get to the issue. “There are obviously a number of things…that have been taking up a substantial amount of [Obama’s] time, so I’m not exactly sure what the sequencing would be.” All Holder had done was to reiterate the new president’s campaign position. But the damage was done.
The remarks caught fire with National Rifle Association and its water carriers on Capitol Hill. The White House could tolerate a certain amount of ire from conservative Republicans, who were unlikely to support its domestic agenda anyway. But as Obama’s political advisers saw it, they could not afford to alienate any moderate or conservative Democrats. To White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, it looked like Holder’s comments were doing just that. Later that day, Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, a Democrat with an A plus rating from the NRA, went ballistic. “Senators to the Attorney General: Stay Away from Our Guns,” he said in a press release.
Obama said he would “urge Congress” to take on gun-control legislation no later than January—especially a return to the assault-weapons ban.
As the gun revolt was erupting in Congress, Emanuel’s then-deputy, Jim Messina, walked into the chief of staff’s office to tell him about Holder’s faux pas. As I recount in my recent book, Kill or Capture, Emanuel exploded. Slamming his desk, he cursed the attorney general for stepping off message. He sent word back to the Justice Department through aides that Holder needed to “shut the fuck up on guns.” The message was received, and neither Holder nor his bosses at the White House made gun control a priority in the following years.
Until Sandy Hook. On Tuesday, Emanuel, who had long moved on to become mayor of Chicago, was asked about the confrontation with Holder on CBS This Morning. He defended Obama’s record on guns, but also candidly acknowledged that as a president facing enormous economic challenges, Obama had to prioritize. “He was dealing, as you well know, with a myriad of issues,” Emanuel said in response to Norah O’Donnell’s question. Later that day, White House press secretary Jay Carney was pressed about the incident by ABC’s Jake Tapper. Carney demurred, noting that he had not read the book and was “unfamiliar” with the anecdote.
It was Emanuel who said at the outset of the Obama administration, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” The president took the rule to heart on Wednesday, announcing that Vice President Biden would be leading the push for stricter gun laws. In a speech at the White House that coincided with some of the funerals for the victims of the Newtown school shooting, Obama called the attacks “violence that we cannot accept as routine.” Obama said he would “urge Congress” to take on gun-control legislation no later than January—especially a return to the assault-weapons ban.
And he defended his administration’s notable lack of action on gun violence during his first term on Wednesday, telling reporters that his time was significantly occupied with an economic recession and the auto crisis. “I don’t think I’ve been on vacation,” he said.