Obama Fails To Find Common Ground On Guns

After the shootings in Tucson, Ariz., Obama invited all stakeholders — gun control groups, the NRA and law enforcement — to meet with justice department officials. But as NPR's Mara Liasson tells Scott Simon, the president came up empty. On one side, gun control groups think he's not tough enough, and — on the other — the NRA won't even talk to him.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

President Obama made a brief foray into gun politics in the United States this week. It's an issue Democrats have avoided lately. But after the Tucson shooting that killed six people and wounded congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the White House promised some action by the president.

As NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports, that action did not include any new legislation.

MARA LIASSON: Two months after the Tucson shootings, President Obama wrote an op-ed piece in the Arizona Daily Star, calling for improvements in existing laws to stop mentally unstable and violent people from getting guns. And he invited all the stakeholders - gun-control groups, the NRA and law enforcement -to meet with Justice Department officials over the next two weeks.

It didnt take long for the head of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre, to spurn the president's outstretched hand. Why should I sit down with a group of people who've spent their life fighting the Second Amendment? LaPierre said.

Here he is on Fox News.

Mr. WAYNE LAPIERRE (Executive Vice President and Chief Executive Officer, National Rifle Association of America): Well, I mean my basic reaction is, if you want to start a dialogue, it really shouldn't be about guns. The dialogue really ought to be on bad people and madmen because unless we focus on that, we're never going to get to the point.

LIASSON: On Tuesday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other gun-control advocates were on Capitol Hill, blasting the NRA.

Mayor MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (New York City, New York): But I've always believed that solutions are possible when people of good faith sit down together and look at the facts. So it was disappointing to see the knee-jerk reaction by the National Rifle Association of the White House's offer to talk.

LIASSON: Mayor Bloomberg and the president both want the background-check system improved to include people like the Tucson shooter, who was rejected by the military for drug use. Gun-control groups also want to ban high-capacity ammunition clips, like the one used in Tucson. The president hasn't gone that far. Instead, he's been trying to establish his commitment to gun rights.

In his op-ed, he pointed out that he's allowed people to carry guns in national parks. Earlier this month, when asked by a Mexican reporter if U.S. gun laws help arm Mexican drug runners, he began his answer this way.

President BARACK OBAMA: I believe in the Second Amendment. It does provide for Americans the right to bear arms for their protection, for their safety, for hunting, for a wide range of uses.

LIASSON: The president has been criticized by the left for not pushing for legislation to renew the assault weapons ban, or close the gun show loophole. E.J. Dionne, in the Washington Post, wrote a column this week titled, "Why Won't Obama Stand Up To NRA Bullies?"

But Jim Kessler, former director of Americans for Gun Safety, is sympathetic to the president, noting that neither of those remedies could pass Congress.

Mr. JIM KESSLER (Former Director, Americans for Gun Safety): To give the president credit, is he's wading into this issue, but trying to do something that may have an effect on crime in a positive way, and may be able to get done. Politically, the minefield is obvious. You've got the NRA, and you have basically two of every five households has a gun in the home; a lot of folks identify themselves as gun owners. This is an issue where rightly or wrongly, Democrats feel that it has cost them.

LIASSON: The president ended his op-ed in a familiar, Obamaesque way, describing himself standing between two extremes - one where, quote: Some will say nothing short of sweeping anti-gun legislation is capitulation to the gun lobby; and the other where, quote: Any discussion is part of a wild-eyed scheme to take away everybody's guns.

The response he got showed once again how easy it is for the president to stake out the middle ground, but how hard it is to get anyone else to stand there with him.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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