Published on
the Chicago Tribune

Obama Puts Gun-Control Issue on Back Burner

Advocates say they are still looking to him for leadership

John McCormick

In July 2007, when the presidency was still a long-shot proposition, Barack Obama stopped at Vernon Park Church of God in Chicago to deliver a fiery sermon challenging the government, the gun lobby and the public to do more to stop gun violence.

"Our playgrounds have become battlegrounds. Our streets have become cemeteries. Our schools have become places to mourn the ones we've lost," he told a standing-room-only congregation at the Far South Side church. "The violence is unacceptable, and it's got to stop."

As he expressed outrage over 32 Chicago public schoolchildren having been killed that previous school year, Obama called for better enforcement of existing gun laws, tighter background checks on gun buyers and a permanent assault-weapons ban.

"A couple weeks ago, cops found an AK-47 near a West Side school," he said at the time. "That type of weapon belongs on a battlefield, not on the streets of Chicago."

Fast-forward to the present: 33 Chicago public school students have been slain so far this school year.

But even as Obama has packed his agenda during his first 100 days in office, he has mostly bypassed the contentious gun issue, despite its importance in Chicago and other urban areas.

Gun and ammunition sales have surged across the nation since Obama's election because of fear that his administration will put additional restrictions in place. But at least so far, Obama and Democrats in Congress have given no indication that they will re-impose an expired ban on the sale of so-called assault weapons.

Earlier this month, Obama suggested he does not believe the re-authorization of a federal ban is politically viable now. While he said he still believes the ban "made sense," he expressed greater interest in stricter enforcement of existing gun laws and efforts to more widely distribute gun-tracing information to local law enforcement.

"He can't sidestep it," said Ronald Holt, who lost a son to gun violence in May 2007. "There is going to come a time that President Obama will -- and should -- speak to the issue of gun violence. When he does, I hope he comes back home to do it."

Holt said he received a voice message from Obama the morning that a visitation was held for his 16-year-old son, Blair, who was killed on a CTA bus.

"He said something about how he couldn't imagine how he would react if something like this had come into his family," Holt recalled, adding that he returned a message to Obama to say he wanted support for stronger gun legislation.

The assault-weapons ban, which lapsed five years ago, has many supporters in the White House, including chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who lobbied for its passage when he worked for President Bill Clinton. But with an economic crisis still raging, the administration has decided now is not the right time to tangle with the powerful National Rifle Association.

"The president supports the 2nd Amendment, respects the tradition of gun ownership in this country, and he believes we can take common-sense steps to keep our streets safe," Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt said in a statement. "The administration included $2 billion in funding in the Recovery and Reinvestment Act for communities to hire more police officers and to enhance their crime-fighting technology."

Thom Mannard, executive director of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, said he did not expect Obama to push gun legislation early on in his administration. But he said that advocates will be looking for leadership on the issue and "there probably will be a limit to that patience."

Mannard said he was encouraged by Obama's remarks on the assault-weapons ban and a recent decision not to challenge a court ruling that prohibits visitors at some national parks from carrying loaded concealed firearms. "He will be a backstop for potentially vetoing bad legislation that gets through," he said.

One of those in Obama's Cabinet who dealt with gun violence routinely is Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the former head of Chicago Public Schools. In a recent interview, he said he has not spoken with the president about gun violence in Chicago or elsewhere.

"I don't have any keen insight there," Duncan said, before noting that gun violence was the most challenging aspect of his former job.

"I thought I had made things better in some areas," he said. "This is an area where I was a total failure."

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