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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Did Obama Flip-Flop on Gun Control?

Wayne LaPierre, chief executive officer of the National Rifle Association, incorrectly claimed Obama pulled a bait-and-switch, promising during the campaign not to take away anyone’s guns, but now supporting an assault weapons ban. Obama is not now seeking to take away anyone’s existing guns, and he has for years consistently supported a reinstatement of the assault weapons ban.

Speaking on “Fox News Sunday” on Feb. 3, LaPierre was asked by host Chris Wallace what he made of the White House releasing a photo of President Obama skeet shooting at Camp David.

LaPierre, Feb. 3: Well, I make the same thing during the campaign, when he said to people I will not take away your rifle, shotgun, handgun. They leafletted the country with flyers like this, “Obama is not going to take your gun, Obama is going to protect gun rights.” And, now, he’s trying to take away all three.

Back in the 2008 campaign, Obama did say that he would not take away people’s guns. And he recently announced that he supports gun control measures that include a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Since then, Sen. Dianne Feinstein has proposed the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013, which seeks to reinstate and expand on the 1994 assault weapons ban that expired in 2004.

So has Obama flip-flopped? No.

For starters, as we have noted before, the law proposed by Feinstein would grandfather in all of the existing weapons owned by Americans, as did the 1994 assault weapons ban. No weapons were “taken away” from anyone then, and none would be now.

Moreover, Obama has consistently supported reinstatement of an assault weapons ban such as the one Feinstein is now proposing — even as he was vowing not to take away anyone’s guns. When he made his most definitive statement about not taking away people’s guns during the 2008 campaign, Obama added that “there are some common-sense gun safety laws that I believe in.”

Obama, Sept. 9, 2008: I just want to be absolutely clear, alright. So I don’t want any misunderstanding. When ya’ll go home and you’re talking to your buddies, and they say, “Ah, he wants to take my gun away,” you’ve heard it here — I’m on television so everybody knows it —  I believe in the Second Amendment. I believe in people’s lawful right to bear arms. I will not take your shotgun away. I will not take your rifle away. I won’t take your handgun away. … So, there are some common-sense gun safety laws that I believe in. But I am not going to take your guns away. So if you want to find an excuse not to vote for me, don’t use that one. Cause that just ain’t true.

In 2011, Obama penned an op-ed after a Tucson shooting that left six dead and many others wounded, including then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. As he does now, Obama supported more comprehensive background checks and called for a national discussion on ways to prevent further gun violence.

Obama, March 13, 2011: I know some aren’t interested in participating. Some will say that anything short of the most sweeping anti-gun legislation is a capitulation to the gun lobby. Others will predictably cast any discussion as the opening salvo in a wild-eyed scheme to take away everybody’s guns. And such hyperbole will become the fodder for overheated fundraising letters.

But I have more faith in the American people than that. Most gun-control advocates know that most gun owners are responsible citizens. Most gun owners know that the word “commonsense” isn’t a code word for “confiscation.” And none of us should be willing to remain passive in the face of violence or resigned to watching helplessly as another rampage unfolds on television.

Obama has consistently shown support for an assault weapons ban. In a debate during his 2004 Senate campaign, Obama said assault weapons “have only one purpose, to kill people,” and he called it “a scandal that this president [Bush] did not authorize a renewal of the assault weapons ban.” And anyone who thought Obama had a change of heart since then wasn’t paying very close attention to what he was saying during the 2012 campaign.

During the second presidential debate on Oct. 16, 2012, Obama made clear that he still supported an assault weapons ban.

Obama, Oct. 16, 2012: So my belief is that, a., we have to enforce the laws we’ve already got, make sure that we’re keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, those who are mentally ill. We’ve done a much better job in terms of background checks, but we’ve got more to do when it comes to enforcement.

But I also share your belief that weapons that were designed for soldiers in war theaters don’t belong on our streets. And so what I’m trying to do is to get a broader conversation about how do we reduce the violence generally. Part of it is seeing if we can get an assault weapons ban reintroduced, but part of it is also looking at other sources of the violence — because, frankly, in my hometown of Chicago there’s an awful lot of violence, and they’re not using AK-47s, they’re using cheap handguns.

Obama made similar comments while speaking before the National Urban League Convention on July 25, 2012.

Obama, July 25, 2012: But I also believe that a lot of gun owners would agree that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of criminals — that they belong on the battlefield of war, not on the streets of our cities. I believe the majority of gun owners would agree that we should do everything possible to prevent criminals and fugitives from purchasing weapons; that we should check someone’s criminal record before they can check out a gun seller; that a mentally unbalanced individual should not be able to get his hands on a gun so easily. These steps shouldn’t be controversial. They should be common sense.

Obama has consistently argued that an assault weapons ban is not the same thing as taking away people’s guns, a point White House Press Secretary Jay Carney reiterated in a Jan. 25 press conference. Carney said the president is advocating “proposals that are very common-sense and not one of which would take away a gun from a single law-abiding American.”

In his Fox News interview, LaPierre argued that Obama’s plan for universal background checks would “turn … into a universal registry of law-abiding people.” LaPierre has argued that there are only two reasons for such a registry: “to tax them or take them.” But as we wrote when he made this claim before, current law bars federal agencies from retaining records on those who pass background checks or from using such records to create a federal gun registry. Nothing in the president’s plan would change that.

It is true that the ban would prohibit Americans from purchasing certain types of weapons. But that’s not the same thing as claiming Obama’s support for the assault weapons ban breaks his campaign promise to not take away people’s rifles, shotguns and handguns. Rather the legislation would seek to ban the future sales of certain types of each.

Here’s the list of weapons that would be banned, from a fact sheet from Feinstein’s office on the proposed bill:

  • All semiautomatic rifles that can accept a detachable magazine and have at least one military feature: pistol grip; forward grip; folding, telescoping, or detachable stock; grenade launcher or rocket launcher; barrel shroud; or threaded barrel.
  • All semiautomatic pistols that can accept a detachable magazine and have at least one military feature: threaded barrel; second pistol grip; barrel shroud; capacity to accept a detachable magazine at some location outside of the pistol grip; or semiautomatic version of an automatic firearm.
  • All semiautomatic rifles and handguns that have a fixed magazine with the capacity to accept more than 10 rounds.
  • All semiautomatic shotguns that have a folding, telescoping, or detachable stock; pistol grip; fixed magazine with the capacity to accept more than 5 rounds; ability to accept a detachable magazine; forward grip; grenade launcher or rocket launcher; or shotgun with a revolving cylinder.

For a more complete list of firearms the bill seeks to prohibit, by name, see a press release issued by Feinstein.

— Robert Farley