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Obama Pushed To Address Gun Control

People shoot  their guns at a shooting range near the Crossroads of the West  Gun Show in Tucson, Ariz., on Jan. 15.
Kevork Djansezian
Getty Images
People shoot their guns at a shooting range near the Crossroads of the West Gun Show in Tucson, Ariz., on Jan. 15.

President Obama has been under increasing pressure to say something — anything — about whether he intends to push for stricter gun control measures in the wake of the Jan. 8 massacre in Tucson.

On Monday, gun control advocates intensified their push for a presidential weigh-in, after New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that his investigators bought semi-automatic weapons at an Arizona gun show without undergoing criminal background checks.

When asked about Bloomberg's report, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday afternoon that he hadn't seen it. He added: "We believe that there are reasons that federal laws are on the books, and the need to strongly adhere to and follow existing law is important not just in the purchase of weapons but throughout our civil life."

Bloomberg's announcement on his city's "sting" operation — including videos posted online —comes three weeks after Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was critically injured and six people killed in the Tucson shooting. And six days after Obama decided not to address gun control in his annual State of the Union speech, even while paying tribute to Giffords and the other casualties.

The guns and ammunition that investigators say they purchased included a Glock 9 mm semi-automatic pistol, similar to the weapon that authorities say the Tucson gunman used, and a 33-round magazine, also allegedly used by the gunman.

"There are a number of things that the White House can do — and one of them is to just admit there's a problem," says Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "They have barely even mentioned that gun violence occurred."

After the president's nationally televised address last week, White House advisers insisted that the administration intends to "engage" in debate on the issue, but declined to give a timetable.

Advocates in the gun control community say that they have had conversations with White House officials but have seen no working documents, and they acknowledge that an administration that has never made much of the gun issue is struggling with its volatile politics.

"They haven't indicated what the timing is on this, the venue or what he's going to do," Helmke says. "We're just going to continue to pressure the White House."

The Bloomberg Sting

Bloomberg's latest undercover operation sent investigators to the Crossroads of the West Gun Show in Phoenix two weeks after the Tucson shooting.

The aim? To expose what Bloomberg and other gun control advocates refer to as the "gun show loophole" — the ability of private dealers to sell guns without running criminal checks on purchases, as licensed sellers are required to do.

There are a number of things that the White House can do — and one of them is to just admit there's a problem. They have barely even mentioned that gun violence occurred.

Alleged Tucson shooter Jared Loughner legally purchased a gun at a gun store, and ammunition at a Walmart. The type of high-capacity magazine he allegedly used had been illegal under the Clinton-era assault weapons ban that Congress allowed to expire in 2004, after a decade on the books.

Bloomberg's foray into Arizona was his third high-profile action against illegal sales of firearms at gun shows and has led the National Rifle Association to accuse him of "grandstanding." His first, in 2006, targeted states, including Virginia, where weapons used in multiple crimes in New York City had been purchased.

In October 2009, he sent undercover investigators to gun shows in Ohio, Tennessee and Nevada. At that time, the mayor claimed that 74 percent of the 47 gun sellers they tested appeared to violate federal law.

After the 2006 report, Bloomberg sued 27 stores that allegedly allowed stand-ins to illegally purchase guns for other users. Some states have since outlawed such stings, and the U.S. Justice Department has warned that they may not be legal.

The mayor, who has also largely bankrolled the national Mayors Against Illegal Guns organization, is not threatening to sue anyone this time around. Instead, he has proposed that background checks be required for all gun sales, and that the national Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives be provided "adequate resources and a stronger mandate from Washington."

Cuts To ATF?

The call by gun control advocates for more robust ATF funding may fall on deaf ears in Washington.

A report in Monday's Washington Post said that the administration has, in a budget draft, proposed cutting ATF's funding in the coming year. The proposal includes eliminating an Obama initiative to battle gun trafficking between the United States and Mexico.

That suits gun rights advocate Larry Pratt just fine.

"The ATF should be underfunded a lot more," says Pratt, executive director of the Gun Owners of America. "It's been on a tear against the firearms community."

Pratt argues that criminal background checks have "done nothing" to lower crime. And, echoing an NRA characterization of Bloomberg as "Mayor Blame," he said that the mayor "needs to get his own house in order."

National crime statistics over the past decade have consistently placed New York City on the list of the Top 10 safest cities in the nation.

Josh Horwitz of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence says that reports that the ATF would lose funding are "very disappointing."

"The ATF needs to be given a priority, since our guns are destabilizing Mexico and we have to deal with that problem," he said. "Because of the politicized nature of this debate, the ATF is operating with one hand tied behind their back."

An ATF agent twice nominated by Obama to head the agency, which has not had a permanent head for five years, has drawn opposition from the NRA and faces a tough road in the Senate. And funding for other gun-related ATF initiatives has been slow to come.

House Democrats are pushing for gun safety hearings in the wake of the Tucson shooting, but that effort — and any involving gun control issues, including a move to limit high-capacity magazines — is unlikely to gain traction in Congress. Bloomberg appeared to acknowledge that reality.

"Congress should act now, but gun show operators shouldn't wait," Bloomberg said. "They can do the right thing today by making sure that every gun sale at their shows is subject to a background check."

Horwitz put the onus on Obama.

"The administration's record so far has been woefully inadequate," he said, noting that nearly a dozen law enforcement officers were shot last week in five states, prompting a police union spokesman to suggest to Fox News that "there's a war on cops going on."

"This is an issue that demands attention," he said.

But with events continuing to unfold in Egypt, and a White House domestic focus on jobs, nobody on either side of the gun issue is predicting anything soon, or big, from Obama.

Especially, says Pratt, as the president continues to gear up for a re-election run.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.