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Obama, Romney back gun owners as they decry shootings

People stand at a memorial for victims behind the theater where a gunman opened fire on moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado July 22, 2012. President Barack Obama travels to Colorado on Sunday to meet families bereaved after a "demonic" gunman went on a shooting rampage at a movie theater in a Denver suburb, killing at least 12 people and wounding 58.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

No matter the carnage, neither man vying for the Oval Office backs tougher gun control, even a crackdown on military-style assault weapons.

Quite the contrary. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have been keen to assure voters of their pro-gun credentials even as they decry the latest massacre by someone armed with four high-powered, rapid-firing weapons and enough ammunition to wipe out a small town – all of them obtained legally under current federal and Colorado laws.

Both presidential hopefuls have ducked when faced with direct demands to defy the powerful gun lobby despite the tens of thousands of gun deaths annually, accidental and intentional, that separate the United States from the rest of the western world.

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"They want to lead this country," said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, one of only a handful of politicians willing to publicly advocate gun control, in a challenge to Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney. "They've said things before that they're in favour of banning things like assault weapons. Where are they now and why don't they stand up?"

Both, though, have been conspicuously silent.

Mr. Obama "believes we need to take steps that protect Second Amendment rights of the American people but ... ensure that we are not allowing weapons into the hands of individuals who should not, by existing law, obtain those weapons," his spokesman said, as Air Force One flew the President back to Washington after consoling families of those gunned down in a suburban Colorado movie theatre.

In an interview Monday, Mr. Romney was asked about laws that would ban the online sale of ammunition or restrict sales of semi-automatic weapons. He responded that Colorado already has "very stringent" gun laws.

"Our challenge is not the laws, our challenge is people who, obviously, are distracted from reality and do unthinkable, unimaginable, inexplicable things," Mr. Romney added.

Neither Mr. Obama nor his presumptive Republican rival utter the words "gun control" unless it is to accuse a political opponent of advocating it.

"I'm not going to take your guns away," Mr. Obama famously promised as he ran for president in 2008, seeking to dispel the widely-held notion that an urban Chicagoan with a history of advocating tougher gun laws would try to limit the "right to bear arms" if he got to the Oval Office. And he hasn't.

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On Mr. Obama's watch, landmark Supreme Court decisions have also swept away limits on assault weapons and scrapped as unconstitutional efforts by cities such as Washington, D.C., and Chicago to ban hand guns. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, named for the aide shot and crippled during the 1980 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, slapped Mr. Obama with an "F" for failing on gun control.

The President has spent the last three years trying to avoid the issue," Mr. Bloomberg said Sunday, as the nation reeled from the latest mass killing.

Still Mr. Obama remains in the cross-hairs of the National Rifle Association, widely regarded as among the most powerful political force in the nation. It targets any politician in any state who dares to advocate gun control.

If Mr. Obama wins a second terms he plans to "destroy the Second Amendment" and "end our freedom forever," the NRA's Executive Vice-President Wayne LaPierre warns.

As for the Republican standard-bearer Mitt Romney, he has fought hard to prove he deserves the NRA stamp of approval. He has bought guns, joined the NRA (just before his first failed presidential bid) and made a rousing speech to the group's annual meeting.

But Mr. Romney, in his days as governor of the liberal state of Massachusetts wasn't only passing sweeping health-care legislation.

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In 2004, then Gov. Romney, signed a ban on the military-style semi-automatic of the type used in the Colorado massacre. "Deadly assault weapons ... are instruments of destruction with the sole purpose of hunting down and killing people," he said then. He told Fox News: "I believe the people should have the right to bear arms, but I don't believe that we have to have assault weapons as part of our personal arsenal."

Although mass killings garner massive media attention, they represent only a tiny fraction of gun deaths in the U.S. Roughly 30,000 people are killed annually by gunfire of which more than half are suicide and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 11,000 are homicides. Only a few hundred shootings each year are lawful killings either by police or citizens in self-defence. That is roughly the same number of deaths from accidental falls and three-quarters of the toll from car accidents.

Meanwhile, overall public support for tougher gun control has declined since 2000, as tracked by the Pew Research Trust, which has polled on the issue for many years. Then, two-thirds of respondents felt gun control was more important that gun ownership rights. In the most recent poll, in April, Americans were divided, with a slightly more (49 per cent) believing gun rights were more important than the 45 per cent who would back tougher gun controls.

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International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More


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