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What’s Obama’s Record on Gun Control?

Coming Feb. 19, FRONTLINE and the Hartford Courant team up to investigate the young man and the town he changed forever in Raising Adam Lanza. Also in the hour, reporters travel to Newtown, a town divided, and explore how those closest to the tragedy are now wrestling with our nation’s gun culture and laws.

Last night, in the fourth address he’s made to victims of mass shootings, President Barack Obama called, again, for action to end the tragedies.

“No single law — no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society,” he said at the Dec. 16 memorial service for the 26 victims of the Newtown, Conn. shooting. ”But that can’t be an excuse for inaction.”

Obama’s focus during his presidency so far has seemed to try to walk a line between gun control and gun rights. During the Democratic National Convention in 2008, for example, Obama spoke about finding common ground between supporters of both sides: “The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than they are for those plagued by gang violence in Cleveland, but don’t tell me we can’t uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals,” he said.

So far, however, the only legislation the president has signed since he took office in 2008 has expanded gun laws, allowing loaded guns in national parks and unloaded weapons stored in luggage on Amtrak trains.

Six months after the Jan. 8, 2011 shooting in Tuscon, Ariz. that left six dead and several others wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the White House said the attorney general had formed working groups in the Justice department to identify “common-sense measures” to prevent another mass shooting while respecting gun rights.

The department came up with a list of proposals, including ways to strengthen background checks for prospective gun buyers. But according to a recent New York Times story, it shelved those ideas about a year ago as the administration focused on the upcoming election and the attorney general dealt with the fallout from Operation Fast and Furious, the botched gun-trafficking case.

After the July 20 shooting in the Aurora, Col. movie theater that killed 12, Obama spoke to the Urban League in New Orleans about the problem of violence — not just mass shootings, but gang violence in cities — that plagues the U.S.

“I’m going to continue to work with members of both parties, and with religious groups and with civic organizations, to arrive at a consensus around violence reduction — not just of gun violence, but violence at every level, on every step, looking at everything we can do to reduce violence and keep our children safe — from improving mental health services for troubled youth — to instituting more effective community policing strategies,” he said.

But the president again proposed no new initatives.

Shortly after those remarks and the Aug. 5 shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisc. that left six dead, White House spokesman Jay Carney side-stepped the question of whether new legislation was needed, repeatedly saying, “We need to take common-sense measures that protect Second Amendment rights and make it harder for those who should not have weapons under existing law from obtaining weapons.”

Carney said that Obama has long supported renewing a ban on assault weapons, which expired in 2004, but that the stalemate in Congress made passing any such legislation difficult.

By 2012, when he appeared before the Democratic National Convention again, Obama made no mention of guns at all.

In Obama’s address yesterday, the president promised to use “whatever power this office holds” to stop the violence. But it’s unclear what that will mean. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has promised to introduce new gun-control legislation in the next session, which she said would be similar to the now-expired assault-weapons ban.

“It [the bill] will ban the sale, the transfer, the transportation and the possession,” the California senator said on NBC’s Meet the Press yesterday. “Not retroactively, but prospectively. And it will ban the same for big clips, drums or strips of more than 10 bullets.”

The White House hasn’t yet said whether it would support the bill.

The president’s slim record on guns has earned him harsh criticism from both sides. The Brady Project, which supports strong gun controls, branded his first term a “failure,” while the National Rifle Association said (pdf) that Obama “has a long history of trying to regulate, restrict and ban your Second Amendment rights out of existence.”

Dan Cartwright, co-owner of TDS Guns, places a semi-automatic pistol on display at his store in Rocklin, Calif., Friday, July 27, 2012. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
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