When a white software developer allegedly shot and killed an unarmed black teenager at a Jacksonville, Fla., gas station last weekend (for the crime of playing his music too loudly), it was the latest death in a relentless stream of gun violence in recent months, from the Aurora theater massacre to the gang violence that has plagued Chicago.
The shooting instantly drew comparisons to Trayvon Martin’s murder last February and re-ignited debate about Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground self-defense law. But for the nation’s gun-control lobby, Jordan Russell Davis’s death last week was more than that: it was a sign of Barack Obama’s failure to enact a gun policy that saves lives.
During Obama’s second term, “48,000 Americans will be killed by guns,” says John Feinblatt, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s chief police adviser and chairman of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, citing a statistic based on research from the Center for Disease Control. “The American people deserve to know how they will be kept safe, and that’s the job of the president as he enters his new term.”
Feinblatt and other gun-control leaders say that with the president’s reelection behind him and his second-term priorities beginning to take shape, this is a golden moment for their cause.
Topping their agenda: extending criminal background check laws to all 50 states, and closing private-sale loopholes to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. Advocacy groups like Mayors Against Illegal Guns and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence say they’re redoubling their fundraising efforts, planning new advertising campaigns, marches and protests to create what the movement has long struggled to maintain: sustained public support for gun control measures.
“The deck is clear for Obama to be a leader on this,” says Josh Horwitz, the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, “and it will be a stain on his record if he isn’t.”
Background check requirements for purchasing a gun exist in 17 states, but loopholes that Feinblatt calls “big enough to drive a Mack truck through,” include the private sale provision that allows anyone to purchase a gun through a retailer without a background check.
“The term ‘loophole’ suggests it’s a small problem,” says Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, who conducted a national survey of inmates incarcerated for gun crimes. “I found that 80 percent [of the inmates studied] took advantage of the private-sale loophole to acquire their guns, there were no obligations for background checks or record-keeping.”
According to data from the Department of Justice (PDF), more than 1.9 million prohibited purchasers were identified trying to buy guns from federally licensed dealers from 1994 to 2009.
Obama’s liberal critics say he has softened on gun control as he has risen through the political ranks. In 2000, he said, “I have consistently made gun control one of my top priorities,” and Obama was an active supporter of an assault-rifle ban throughout his early political career.
By the time he was a presidential nominee, he maintained support for a federal ban but was careful to reassure gun owners, “I am not going to take your guns away.”
After winning the presidency in 2008, Obama has continually expressed his support for Second Amendment rights while calling for “sound and effective steps” to keep guns out of the hands of criminals after the 2011 Tucson mass shooting.
In response to a question about gun control asked at the second presidential debate in October, Obama hinted at a tougher stance on guns in his second term. “What I’m trying to do is get a broader conversation about how do we reduce the violence generally,” he said. “Part of it is seeing if we can get another assault-weapons ban reintroduced.”
On Monday, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly criticized Obama for not speaking out against gun violence. “Maybe the city most affected [by guns] is Chicago,” Kelly told The Daily News, “the president’s hometown, but barely a peep out of him.”
The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
Gun-control advocates point to shifting demographics, including a record number of minority voters turning out in the election, and high-profile losses for NRA-endorsed candidates like Republican George Allen of Virginia who lost his Senate race to Democrat Tom Kaine. “The equation has totally changed. There’s a new sheriff in town on the gun-control issue,” says Horwitz. “People think there’s a cavern on the gun issue, but there’s actually incredible agreement. Most Americans believe we should have background checks on gun sales, and that’s really what the movement is asking for these days.”
A poll conducted by GOP strategist Frank Luntz for Mayors Against Illegal Guns in July, a few weeks after the Aurora theater massacre, found that 87 percent of non-NRA members and 74 percent of NRA members “support requiring criminal background checks of anyone purchasing a gun.”
But the NRA is already gearing up for the fight. “We have no doubt that [Obama’s] efforts will be applauded by the gun control lobby and they’ll do whatever they can to push their agenda,” says the group’s spokesman, Andrew Arulanandam. “Our job is to make sure they don’t succeed.”