President Obama Faces Gun Control Dilemma After Connecticut School Shootings

The president’s emotional reaction to the Connecticut shooting has gun-control advocates hopeful.

Mark Wilson / Getty Images

White House officials could not help but notice how grim President Obama looked after news of the Connecticut school shootings reached the White House.

“It was the most emotional I’ve ever seen him,” one said.

In perhaps the most stirring moment of his tenure, Obama shed his usual steely resolve and wiped away tears as he addressed the nation on Friday about the tragedy. He even ad-libbed his closing words, quoting Scripture about the need to “heal the broken-hearted and bind up their wounds.”

It was difficult not to be moved when the president said he reacted as a father and emphasized, “I know there is not a parent in America who doesn’t feel the same overwhelming grief that I do.” And he will follow up Sunday by going to Newtown and visiting with family members of those who were killed.

But he also faces the inevitable question: what then? Obama set a certain bar when he said “we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.” Can he live up to those words?

After all, Obama also acted as healer-in-chief after the Gabby Giffords shooting in Tucson, Ariz., and again after the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo. The president said then that he hoped “we all reflect on how we can do something about some of the senseless violence that ends up marring this country.”

But Obama did virtually nothing. Most Democrats have long shied away from the gun-control issue as political poison. And while the death toll in Newtown is ratcheting up the pressure for the president to take what he calls “meaningful action,” it is not clear that he can—or will—mount a legislative effort against the power of the National Rifle Association.

A White House adviser said Obama’s words were not mere rhetoric. “He did speak emotionally after Tucson and Aurora, but I do think yesterday seemed different. He does mean it and will follow through,” he said.

But while no decisions have been made, the adviser said, “if we regress into our corners and retrod the ground of the gun-control debate, I’m not sure anyone will be well served by that.” Instead, this person spoke of a “broader look” that could include improved mental-health services and efforts to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally unbalanced.

If that is the president’s course, he will disappoint gun-control advocates and those Democrats who passionately believe that tighter restrictions are needed to curtail what has become a depressingly regular series of mass shootings.

This time is “different,” Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, told The New York Times, “because no decent human being can look at a tragedy like this and not be outraged by the fact that it can happen in our nation. And because this time, we’re really poised to harness that outrage and create a focused and sustained outcry for change.”

But the politics have not fundamentally changed. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is making a renewed push for gun control, as is Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), whose husband was killed in a mass shooting on the Long Island Railroad in 1993.

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But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has NRA support, said nothing about gun control in his statement on the shootings. And most Republicans are fervently opposed to further restrictions. And the NRA, as a single-issue organization that financially rewards its friends and punishes its opponents, remains one of Washington’s most powerful lobbies. So even if Obama decided to mount a concerted effort to tighten gun laws, he could well be stymied on Capitol Hill.

Bill Clinton pushed through an assault weapon ban in 1994, and some Democrats are convinced that was a factor in the GOP takeover of Congress that year. George W. Bush and a Republican Congress allowed the law to quietly expire in 2004.

After the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, the Clinton administration tried unsuccessfully to pass a requirement that buyers at gun shows be subjected to background checks.

There was a flurry of interest in limiting ammunition purchases after Jared Loughner used 30 rounds of ammo to kill six people and wound Giffords at a Tucson shopping center. (The Connecticut shooter, Adam Lanza, used an assault rifle as well as two pistols, all of which were legally registered to his mother, who was among his 28 victims.) The former congresswoman’s husband, Mark Kelly, called for action on gun control after the elementary-school shootings.

Freed from the constraints of seeking reelection, Obama faces a difficult decision in the coming weeks. The view at the White House is that routine urban violence poses as much of a problem as mass shootings in schools or shopping malls (two died at an Oregon shopping center last week). But it is the public outcry over Newtown that could provide the impetus for a serious administration push on gun control—unless the president chooses not to go beyond his rare show of emotion that reflected a nation’s grief.