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Taking On Assault Weapons Could Be a Political Winner for Obama

The horrific and deadly rampage in Colorado has renewed public interest in the merits of gun control, though neither presidential campaign has thus far made an issue of it. Part of the reason is that they don't want to be perceived as politicizing a true tragedy. But it's also undeniable that gun control is an especially risky issue. There is, however, an opportunity for Obama to frame the issue in a manner that reduces the risk of alienating conservatives by focusing on assault weapons.

According to a recent Pew Research survey, a plurality of Americans believes it is more important to protect the rights of gun owners than control gun ownership by a narrow 49 to 45 margin. While certain demographic groups—and especially women—are more inclined to favor restrictions on firearms, support for gun control does not fall along lines especially favorable to the President.

Just 37 percent of white voters support additional gun control measures, while 57 percent oppose. That’s a slightly smaller share of the white vote than Obama holds in most polls, so Obama probably wouldn’t gain much by dividing the electorate along gun control-lines, especially a disproportionate share of undecided voters are whites without a college degree —the group least supportive of gun control. If Obama’s route to victory depended on additional gains among suburban women, Chicago might take a chance on gun control. But the President has maximized his support among suburban women and he already possesses a toolbox of wedge issues to push social moderates—like the Planned Parenthood advertisements airing in Washington.

While a broad gun control debate might not benefit the Obama campaign, focus on the assault weapons ban might yield better results for the President. A CBS News/New York Times poll conducted in the aftermath of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting found that while just 46 percent of voters supported stricter gun control laws, 63 percent favored prohibiting the sale or possession of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Since reports indicate that yesterday’s shooter used an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, the merits of such a ban might take on new salience. Romney’s prior support for an assault weapons ban in Massachusetts—before opposing a federal assault weapons ban—might also undermine his credibility as an opponent to the law. Combined with recent events, it is not hard to imagine how the Obama administration or campaign could be tempted to push an assault weapons ban, at least briefly.

Another factor working on behalf of renewed attention to the assault weapons ban is geography. While this may seem crass, any capable political operative will notice that Colorado is a critical swing state. The moderate and independent voters of the Denver suburbs will effectively cast the state's 9 electoral votes, and--between Columbine and last night--gun control could carry more significance for suburban voters outside of Denver than elsewhere in the country, although I should emphasize that I'm not aware of any data to support this assertion. There are risks in appearing overly political after a tragic shooting, but problems demand solutions and the Obama campaign could argue that the such a ban is prudent and necessary in the aftermath of last night's violence. Somber voters outside of Denver may be inclined to agree.

But the President would need to be extremely careful. Fighting for an assault weapons ban risks a broader debate about gun rights, where Republicans are on stronger ground with the culturally conservative white working class voters critical to both campaign's chances. And while support for gun control might temporarily increase in the wake of yesterday’s violence, Chris Cillizza and Mark Blumenthal both correctly observe that prior incidents of gun violence haven’t resulted in lasting shifts in public opinion. If anything, support for gun control has declined, which isn’t especially surprising since the murder rate has fallen steadily over the two decades. Once the acute memory of yesterday’s tragedy fades, there might not be too many swing voters horrified by Republican opposition to a federal assault gun ban, even if they find it troubling and perplexing. 

So while Obama might remind the country of his support for an assault gun ban, the Obama campaign probably won't routinely stress the issue for the next few months until November. Perhaps the most likely course: a week of media attention and perhaps targeted advertisements in media markets where the issue plays particularly well.