Obama: AK-47s don't belong on the streets

Denver massacre prompts President to call for action on gun control, but he stays clear of specific legislation

Not quite a week after a the massacre of 12 cinema-goers in Colorado, the President of the United States ventured before a mostly African-American audience in New Orleans that the time had come for a refreshed national conversation about reducing civilian gun violence.

Barack Obama did not identify specific new gun control legislation nor did he challenge the Second Amendment right of Americans to bear arms – to have done so this close to the November election would have carried enormous political risk. But he did dare wade far deeper into the issue than he has ever in the past as president.

“I think we recognize the traditions of gun ownership passed on from generation to generation, that hunting and shooting are part of a cherished national heritage,” he told members of the National Urban League. “But I also believe that a lot of gun owners would agree that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers and not in the hands of crooks. They belong on the battlefield of war, not on the streets of our cities.”

Mr Obama acknowledged that however much blood is spilled in America because of bullets, nothing ever seems to change. “When there’s an extraordinarily heart-breaking tragedy like the one we saw, there’s always an outcry immediately after for action,” he offered. “There’s talk of new reforms. There’s talk of legislation. And too often those efforts are defeated by politics and by lobbying and eventually by the pull of our collective attention else.”

At the top of the wish-list of the gun control lobby would be the reinstatement of the Bill Clinton-era national ban on assault weapons, such as AK-47s, that was allowed to expire by Congress in 2004 during the George Bush presidency.  As Governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, passed a law banning some assault-weapons including the kind that the suspect in the Colorado shooting is alleged to have used.

But speaking to NBC News upon his arrival in London on Wednesday, Mr Romney, with an eye to conservatives at home, took a different tack to Mr Obama.

“We can sometimes hope that just changing a law will make all bad things go away,” he suggested. “It won’t.” Mr Romney wrongly said in the interview that the guns used by the Colorado gunman were obtained illegally, which they were not.

That Mr Obama has grasped the nettle of gun control fits with a pattern of late where, even in the election year, he has done the same with gay marriage and, to a degree, immigration.  He may have received encouragement from a poll released this week that showed that even a majority of members of the National Rifle Association (NRA) support some degree of legislation such as stricter background checks on buyers of guns.

He pledged to “continue to work with members of both parties and with religious groups and with civic organizations to arrive at a consensus around violence reduction”.  He suggested that steps to prevent criminals or people with mental health issues from buying guns “shouldn't be controversial, they should be common sense”.

Victims struggle with hospital bills

The political fall-out from the Denver cinema massacre is not just about gun control. Several of the critically wounded will struggle to pay their medical bills because they are among the 50 million uninsured people in America.

President Obama’s healthcare overhaul aims to roughly halve that number; Mitt Romney has vowed to repeal it. While hospitals in the US are obliged by law to stabilise critically ill patients even if they can’t pay, there is no such requirement for longer term treatment such as that many of the Colorado victims will need.

A fund-raising effort to help those victims without insurance is under way. Warner Bros, which made the Batman film, has donated $2m (£1.3m) and three hospitals treating the wounded will limit or forgive bills.

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