Obama, Romney Can't Avoid the Gun Issue

The Colorado movie-theater shootings could and should alter the dynamic of the presidential election.

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You have to go back decades -- to the shooting of George Wallace in Laurel, Md., in May 1972, or the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles in June 1968 -- to get such a close chronological linkage of deadly gun events and presidential politics.

That just changed. 

If the Aurora incident hadn't happened, we wouldn't be talking about gun control right now. Neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney would be compelled (as they definitely are now) to take a measured stand on the issue.

In the white-hot glare of this presidential campaign year, neither Democrats nor Republicans may want to engage over gun control (for completely different reasons), but now they may not have a choice. There's not nearly enough time to get away from it. The Century 16 theater killings are likely to provoke the law of unintended consequences, laying the groundwork for a new political conversation where there really wasn't one before.

In the short term, at least, the gun-control question that Bloomberg asked is likely to be more problematic for Romney and the Republicans than it is for the president and other Democrat candidates. The National Rifle Association, the nation's pre-eminent pro-gun lobby, has long had common cause with conservatives generally and the Republican Party in particular. That's an alliance that won't be changing anytime soon.

But the Aurora incident certainly puts the NRA in a bad associative light vis-à-vis public relations. That may be why the NRA hasn't said a mumblin' word about this beyond a reflexive expression of sympathy. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families and the community," an NRA spokesman told Paul Bedard at the Washington Examiner. "NRA will not have any further comment until all the facts are known."

And politically, the tragedy puts Romney's campaign in the position of walking a tightrope: trying to be a healing, anodyne presence in the wake of the event in a nation weary of gun violence; and trying to satisfy his party's still-skeptical conservative base, pledging allegiance to those voters for whom unlimited access to guns is their unassailable Second Amendment right.

Romney's first-blush comments after the shooting, when he spoke from the perspective of a father and a citizen, would seem to suggest that he supports some form of gun control, some limitation of access to the high-volume, rapid-fire weapons that helped make the Aurora incident possible.

So where does the governor stand? Will his campaign say "We'll get back to you" on this one?

And that doesn't let President Obama or the Democrats off the hook. In Dan Froomkin's excellent piece on Friday in the Huffington Post, he recalls Obama's reaction to the Giffords shooting: "President Barack Obama called for a national dialogue, but didn't lead one. Gun-control Democrats proposed banning high-capacity clips, like the ones Giffords' shooter used, but their bills went nowhere."

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