WASHINGTON -- In the midst of his first run for national office in 1999, then-state Senator Barack Obama held a rally at the Park Manor Christian Church to draw attention to the epidemic of gun violence in his home city of Chicago.
At the time, Obama was launching a primary election challenge against Congressman Bobby Rush and it was something of a professional prerequisite that he have a hard line on guns. He chose the church because, as he noted, an 84-year-old woman had recently been killed nearby when young men invaded her home believing she had won the lottery.
"Community residents throughout the 1st Congressional District are tired of violence and death," Obama told the Chicago Independent Bulletin at the time.
Among the prescriptions Obama put forward that day, according to a Dec. 13, 1999 Chicago Defender article, were increasing penalties for the interstate transportation of firearms, increasing the federal tax on the sale of firearms, requiring federally licensed gun dealers to sell firearms in their storefront, restricting gun purchases to one a month, increasing school funding for anger management programs, banning the sale of firearms at gun shows except for "antiques," and increasing licensing fees.
It was a comprehensive platform. But it was also one that Toni Preckwinkle, the current Cook County Board pesident and former alderman who was with Obama on that day, called "typical" for a Chicago pol. "I think the violence ebbs and flows, but the concern about the abundance of handguns and now larger weapons in our community remains," Preckwinkle told The Huffington Post.
It would prove to be the high-water mark for Obama's advocacy on gun control.
Obama lost that primary. But as he won later elections and moved up the national political ranks, gun policy would become less of a focus. Part of it was a byproduct of the offices he occupied: being the young, rising politician requires deference to elder statesmen.
But gun control advocates tell another story as well. The president has shied away from the gun debate, they said, out of political expedience. The Obama who spoke at that church rally isn't the same politician who chose soft-touch responses to the mass shootings in Tucson, Ariz., and, most recently, in Aurora, Colo.
"There is no question he's softened on the issue," said Ed Rendell, the former Pennsylvania governor who focused on the unwillingness of Democrats to take on the gun lobby in his new book, "A Nation of Wusses." "But in fairness to the president, you don't see many other Democrats rushing to the floor saying we need to have legislation."
The first sign of distance between Obama and gun control advocates would come less than a month after that Park Manor Christian Church event. Illinois Gov. George Ryan had pushed for a vote on a bill that would treat the unlawful use of weapons as a felony, despite a large contingent of state lawmakers arguing that it should be a misdemeanor for some first-time offenders. When it came time to take a tally, three state senators allied with Ryan were missing. One was Obama.
In the statehouse, eyebrows were raised. Obama relayed that his daughter Malia had grown sick during his family vacation to his home state of Hawaii. He chose to stay with her rather than make the vote.
"As those of you who are familiar with my record know, I have consistently made gun control one of my top priorities," he wrote in the Hyde Park Herald on Jan. 12, 2000. "It's absolutely critical that we pass strong gun control at the federal as well as the state level. As the congressman, I will work for increased penalties for the use of guns, a one gun per month law for buyers, money for violence prevention and tougher laws stopping sales of firearms at gun shows."
A forceful call for stronger gun laws would remain the president's position through his loss to Rush and up to his run for the Senate in 2004. On May 8 of that year, months before the federal assault weapons ban would expire, Obama would tell Chicago Daily Herald: "Assault weapons are not for hunting. They are the weapons of choice for gang-bangers, drug dealers and terrorists."
“I think it is a scandal that this president did not authorize a renewal of the assault weapons ban,” he declared after the assault weapons bill expired.
By then, Obama was an increasingly well-known Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, having gotten a prime time speaking slot at the national convention. And while his support for gun control legislation was still clear (here's video of him discussing the issue in 2004), there were nuances. In February, he had filled out a survey saying he wanted a federal law denying anyone other than former law enforcement officials the right to carry concealed weapons. By Sept. 15, 2004, The Chicago Tribune was reporting a less ambitious Obama proposal: "national legislation ... to 'prevent other states' laws from threatening the safety of Illinois residents."
Obama's election to the Senate would further soften his approach.
"I don’t remember him having a profile on this issue at all," Jim Kessler, a Capital Hill veteran and former director of policy and research for Americans for Gun Safety. "He wasn't in the U.S. Senate for a very long time. And the thing about it is, when you get there ... [you are] told to stand in line. In the Senate, one of the lead gun-control advocates is [Illinois Senator] Dick Durbin. So you come there and you say, 'Well, my senior senator has a big profile on this. Maybe I should shoot for something else.'"
This dynamic would only hold true for so long. As Obama embarked on his presidential campaign in 2008, the pressures of a Democratic primary required him to appeal to voters who valued stronger gun control laws. That became complicated following his "cling to guns" statement at a private fundraiser in Pennsylvania and as he distanced himself from 1996 questionnaire in which he called for banning "the manufacture, sale and possession of handguns" (his campaign would claim an aide erroneously answered the question).
But as that primary turned into a general election, he didn't drop the issue. In fact, he gave it a memorable mention at his highest-profile address.
"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," Obama declared at the Democratic National Convention in 2008.
For all the talk of unassailable logic of certain gun policies, however, the Obama presidency has seen virtually no corresponding legislative action. Part of that was because of a jam-packed legislative plate.
"He has been supportive of national policy until he took office," said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "I don’t know how much it is the influence of the gun lobby directly, as it is the kind of political calculus. He had an agenda and this was not at the top of his agenda. He needed to create coalitions of support for things like health care and he didn't want to risk fragmenting that support in any way."
But as national incidents of gun violence flared with no major responses, groans have grown louder. Following the shooting of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Obama's former press secretary, Robert Gibbs, stated that the administration continued to support the assault weapons ban. A White House spokesman on Monday confirmed to The Huffington Post that the ban remained the president's position after the shooting last Friday in Aurora. A request for comment from Obama campaign was not returned.
But the type of measures that Obama touted with gusto as a first-time congressional candidate are no longer there. His current press secretary, Jay Carney, conceded on Sunday night that a renewal of the assault weapons ban would be virtually impossible with the current Congress. He added that the White House would look for changes through "existing law" -- an underwhelming response for those who still value gun control as a political objective.
"I think we are at a very bad place in this country when it comes to gun control," said Preckwinkle. "I believe that the pendulum swings on these issues, on this one in particular, and hopefully we will be in a place sometime soon where we can talk about these things again."
"Michelle and I are shocked and saddened by the horrific and tragic shooting in Colorado," President Obama said in a statement. "Federal and local law enforcement are still responding, and my Administration will do everything that we can to support the people of Aurora in this extraordinarily difficult time. We are committed to bringing whoever was responsible to justice, ensuring the safety of our people, and caring for those who have been wounded. As we do when confronted by moments of darkness and challenge, we must now come together as one American family. All of us must have the people of Aurora in our thoughts and prayers as they confront the loss of family, friends, and neighbors, and we must stand together with them in the challenging hours and days to come."
"Ann and I are deeply saddened by the news of the senseless violence that took the lives of 15 people in Colorado and injured dozens more," Mitt Romney said in a statement. "We are praying for the families and loved ones of the victims during this time of deep shock and immense grief. We expect that the person responsible for this terrible crime will be quickly brought to justice."
Sen. Robert Menendez
Scott P. Brown
Speaker John Boehner
Senator John Thune
"This was horrible, senseless and abhorrent act," Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Co.) said in a statement. "My family and I are shocked and deeply saddened this morning and our hearts are with the victims and their families. My staff and I are in contact with and offering our support to law enforcement and medical officials as they respond to the shooting."
"This is not only an act of extreme violence, it is also an act of depravity," Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) said.
"Heartfelt prayers for the victims in Aurora, Colorado and all those impacted by this terrible tragedy," Mike Huckabee said in a statement on his Facebook page.
"I am heartbroken and shocked by the horrific act of violence in Colorado," Tim Kaine said in a statement. "The thoughts of Anne and I are with the families who have lost loved ones in this senseless tragedy. We continue to pray for the recovery of those who have been wounded, and we offer our support to Governor Hickenlooper and the entire community of Aurora as they heal."
"Michael Haley and I have the victims and their families of the Colorado massacre in our thoughts," South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) said in a statement on Facebook. "Please join us in prayer for all those effected by this horrible senseless tragedy."
"I join in mourning the tragic loss of life in Colorado this morning. The families of the victims, the many injured, and all those in Aurora are in my thoughts and in my prayers," House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer said in a statement Friday. "It is in times like these that Americans have always rallied together as one community and one family, and we do so again today. I commend the heroism of our first responders from local and federal law enforcement and area hospitals, who have done an outstanding job in the face of great difficulty. "As the people of Aurora find themselves facing their darkest hour, I hope they find comfort knowing that the memories of the lost will never fade, their community will remain strong, and that the nation stands united alongside them as their process of healing begins."
"Elaine and I are heartbroken by the shootings in Aurora," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Friday in a statement. "This senseless massacre of so many innocent people gathered with friends and family in a movie theater reminds us not only of the great evil that exists in the hearts of some, but of the great and precious gift of life. I join all Americans today in prayer for the victims, their families and friends, and the wider Aurora community, and in heartfelt thanks to all the first responders who quickly responded at great risk to themselves. It is in moments like this that Americans have always drawn closer together and shown their great compassion and generosity to those touched by tragedy and loss. We hope that in the midst of the horror in Aurora, these qualities shine through once again and reach those who are suffering most. America is at prayer today for all who are affected by this tragedy."
Rep. Diana DeGette
"The shooting in the Aurora movie theater is a national tragedy, and the victims of this cruel and violent act are in my thoughts," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a statement Friday. "Innocent people suffered a heartbreaking loss, but the victims and their families are not alone. Today, Americans take time to reflect on the value of life and the things that are most important to us, and mourn for those who lost what is most important to them. Everyone affected by this violent act will be in our hearts today, and for a long time to come."
"The horrific nightmare of a mass shooting on innocent civilians in a crowded public place has, sadly, come true once again," said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), whose family was affected by a mass shooting on the Long Island Railroad before she was elected to Congress, in a statement Friday. "I mourn alongside the people of Aurora for the many killed and injured and the countless family and friends whose lives, as a result of the consequences of this event, will be negatively affected for decades to come. The shooter should be brought to justice and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But we as a nation should also not continue to ignore avenues to prevent tragedies like this from happening in the future."
Senator Dick Durbin
"This is a terrible tragedy for the families of the victims, the city of Aurora and our entire nation," Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren said in a statement Friday. "This senseless violence has no place in our society. As a mother and grandmother, I am truly saddened that so many of the victims were so young. Bruce and I send our thoughts and prayers to the victims and their loved ones."
"The shooting in Aurora is a senseless tragedy and a despicable act," said Libertarian Party presidential candidate and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson in a statement Friday. "Our thoughts go out to the victims, their families, and to the entire community as they deal with the shock and grief today brings. "
"Jill and I were shocked to learn of the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado this morning," Vice President Joe Biden said in a statement Friday. "The reason this is so deeply felt by all Americans is that, but for the grace of God, the victims could have been any one of our children, in any one of our towns. It is every parent's worst nightmare to receive 'that phone call' and to sit by their child's bedside, praying. We know what it's like to wait and wonder and the helplessness a parent feels at this moment. Our hearts go out to each and every person who is suffering right now as a result of this terrible event. The prayers of an entire nation are with the victims and their families. We stand with the city of Aurora and the state of Colorado in mourning."
Gov. Buddy Roemer
"Todd's and my thoughts and prayers go out to the victims of the terrible tragedy in Colorado," Sarah Palin said Friday in a statement on Facebook. "Our family joins others in praying for everyone affected by the evil that inexplicably took innocent lives. We wish to remind all to hold loved ones tight."