Despite campaigning on the promise of convincing Congress to reauthorize a ban on assault weapons, President Barack Obama has not sought a renewal of the weapons ban, which expired in 2004.
On the gun rights front, the struggle over assault weapons has been the biggest issue since the late 1980s. The issue has pitted gun rights activists who see military-style, semi-automatic rifles no more dangerous than a traditional rifle and a ban on them as the proverbial foot-in-the-door for gun control advocates against those who see the weapons — including AK-47s and AR-15s — as guns that do not have a purpose other than to kill.
The wrangling over assault weapons has touched four presidential administrations. The administration of George H.W. Bush saw the initial push for a ban on assault weapons. President Bill Clinton signed the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban into law, while President George W. Bush drew criticism from advocates of both gun rights and gun control when he announced he would sign a renewal of the AWB in 2004 but didn’t push Congress to authorize the renewal. President Obama’s administration has witnessed renewed calls for a ban on assault weapons, though they have gone largely unheeded.
Obama’s Stance on Assault Weapons Prior to 2008
Long before emerging as a leading Democrat contender for the White House, Obama had developed a stance that called for banning assault weapons. As part of a survey conducted by a Chicago non-profit when he was running for the Illinois state senate in 1996, Obama stated his support for a ban on assault weapons in Illinois.
Later, he said Bush erred by not renewing the Assault Weapons Ban in 2004. Debating Republican candidate Alan Keyes in the race for the U.S. Senate, Obama said that assault weapons “have only one purpose: to kill people,” adding that a ban on assault weapons is a “common sense” gun control measure. “I think it is a scandal that this president did not authorize a renewal of the Assault Weapons Ban,” Obama said, referring to Bush.
Obama’s Campaign Stance on Assault Weapons
As the campaign for the presidency began in earnest in 2008, Obama renewed his call for an assault weapons ban, saying that Congress should enact a permanent ban on assault weapons.
After winning election in November 2008, Obama’s transition team launched a website for the incoming administration, change.gov. The website’s urban policy page expressed the goal of Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden to see a permanent assault weapons ban passed, saying “such weapons belong on foreign battlefields and not on our streets.” Within days, however, that policy section was removed from the website.
Obama Administration’s Stance on Assault Weapons
Shortly after Obama was sworn into office, attorney general Eric Holder told reporters that the Obama administration intended to authorize a ban on assault weapons.
Speaking at a press conference announcing the federal government’s crackdown on Mexican drug cartels operating in the U.S., Holder responded to a reporter’s question by saying, “As President Obama indicated during the campaign, there are just a few gun-related changes that we would like to make, and among them would be to reinstitute the ban on the sale of assault weapons.”
It was the second time Holder had spoken of renewing the ban. The first came during his confirmation hearings before Congress, when he said that the administration would seek a permanent ban on assault weapons.
However, Obama nixed the idea of seeking a renewal of the weapons ban weeks later, telling ABC News that “none of us are under any illusion that reinstating that ban would be easy.”
Appearing with Mexican President Filipe Calderon just days later, Obama said that he had “not backed off at all” his campaign pledge to reinstate the ban on assault weapons, appearing to leave the window open for such action to be introduced in Congress. However, such a move has not been made.
Operation Fast and Furious
In 2010, the U.S. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) undertook Operation Fast and Furious, an illegal weapons trafficking sting in which at least 2,000 weapons were allowed to be smuggled from the U.S. into Mexico through straw purchases. The intent of the operation was to build a stronger case against Mexican crime bosses. However, a number of the guns were linked to at least 150 shootings in Mexico, including the death of U.S. border patrol agent Brian Terry in December 2010.
Critics have charged that the operation was an attempt by some members of the Obama administration to demonize assault weapons in an effort to build support for a ban on the weapons. Previously, Mexican and American government officials said that 90% of the assault weapons seized in Mexico have been smuggled in from the U.S., a figure that the National Rifle Association has disputed.