Presidential debate’s real winner?

—Scott Melzer

President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney were asked to share their gun control views at Tuesday night’s town hall debate. Who won this one? The National Rifle Association.

In 1994, President Clinton tangled with the NRA and gun rights supporters prior to signing a federal assault weapons ban, but it expired ten years later. A questioner at last night’s debate asked President Obama what he has done or will do to “limit the availability of assault weapons” and keep them out of the hands of criminals.

By any objective measure, President Obama has not been a champion of gun control. He responded, “You know, we’re a nation that believes in the Second Amendment. And I believe in the Second Amendment. You know, we’ve got a long tradition of hunting and sportsmen and people who want to make sure they can protect themselves.” The statement could have just as easily been uttered by his Republican opponent.

Eventually, the president expressed tepid support for reenacting the assault weapons ban, but only as a part of a broader community and school-based approach to stopping kids from using violence. Obama’s lack of a gun control agenda confirms his lack of desire—or perhaps more likely his disinclination—to pressure Congress to pass gun control legislation. With no robust gun control movement to force politicians to fight for gun control, not even multiple mass killings this past summer could generate much of a conversation about gun control, let alone action. The NRA and gun rights activists have won the debate. This has not stopped them, though, from painting Obama as an extremist seeking to take away gun rights.

“Today, we live in an America that is getting harder to recognize every day led by a President who mocks our values, belittles our faith, and is threatened by our freedom,” said NRA Political Victory Fund chairman Chris W. Cox at the NRA’s formal announcement endorsing the Romney-Ryan ticket. NRA top officer Wayne LaPierre added, “In this election, there is no debate. There is only one choice, only one hope, to save our firearms freedom and our way of life,” he argued. “On November 6, vote freedom first – Vote Romney-Ryan!”

The NRA claims its defense of gun rights is a defense of all rights and freedoms. The Second Amendment protects all others, they say. The NRA frames President Obama (and the Democratic Party) as proponents of big-government policies, and thus enemies of freedom.

The NRA’s gun rights rhetoric doesn’t align with reality.

Perhaps the president is being a political animal by avoiding expressing strong support for gun control. He does so because it is beneficial, and it benefits him because the NRA and gun rights activists have created the new reality. Publicly supporting gun control (or worse) introducing gun control legislation comes at a cost.

As the candidate for an unquestionably anti-gun control party, Governor Romney should be able to exploit this topic for gain. Instead, he agreed with the president that enforcement of current laws and community-based solutions should be used to reduce violence. Romney is trapped not by his political opponents but by his own shifting position on the issue.

Contradicting his earlier position as Governor of Massachusetts, last night he expressed opposition to any new gun control laws, including a ban on assault weapons. The president accused Romney of flip-flopping, but did not paint his opponent as a far-right pro-gun extremist. This is an exception to the president’s strategy of portraying Romney as “severely conservative,” to use the governor’s own words. Severely conservative gun rights supporters suffer no political consequences. Quite the opposite, they receive the grassroots and deep pockets support of the NRA and its four million members.

The NRA and its base of deeply committed gun rights activists have shifted the debate, so that Democratic presidential candidates repeat NRA lines about Second Amendment rights and Republican presidential candidates (even those who previously supported assault weapons bans) cannot secure the party’s nomination unless they oppose all forms of gun control.

The NRA won Tuesday night’s debate because it has won the broader debate about gun control and gun rights. And as long as it continues to wield its formidable power and influence in the name of firearms freedom, the NRA will win again and again.

Scott Melzer is Associate Professor of Sociology at Albion College and author of Gun Crusaders: The NRA’s Culture War (new in paperback).

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