To Ban or Not to Ban? That Is the Question for Obama

Maine senator encourages a thoughtful policy over feel-good measures.

President Barack Obama walks off after delivering a speech at an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn.

President Barack Obama walks off after delivering a speech at an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Dec. 16 in Newtown, Conn.

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Will he or won't he?

That's what's on the minds of gun owners and lobbyists and activists on both sides of the gun control debate–will President Barack Obama call for an assault weapons ban in the wake of a spate of deadly mass shootings or not?

Politically, such a ban doesn't stand much chance of passing Congress, with a Republican House. It's not even clear a ban would pass the Senate, despite its Democratic majority.

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"As I've dug into it, I'm not sure that's the answer because the definition of an assault weapon has not much to do with what it actually does but more with what it looks like," says Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats.

King, who says he hasn't "finalized" his position on the issue, adds it's more important to craft thoughtful, meaningful legislation rather than something that sounds good but is ineffective at reducing gun violence. Hailing from a rural, hunting state known for its high-rate of gun ownership but low-rate of gun violence, King comes to the discussion from a unique perspective and says he is meeting with pro- and anti-gun advocates.

"What we ought to be focused on is what is it about the mechanics of these weapons that enables them to kill large numbers of people in a short period of time and what I'm focused on is the size of the magazine," King says. "I don't want people to kid themselves that by banning so-called assault weapons that they are fixing the problem."

He's not alone in supporting the idea of reform but perhaps not an assault weapons ban – other senators, including West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin have tempered their rhetoric on one.

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David Keene, president of the National Rifle Association, said he didn't believe there was a need or support for such a ban Friday on NBC's Today Show.

"if you're looking at the problem, which is to prevent this sort of thing, what you want to do is do those things that will actually make a difference," he said. "We don't think that a ban on so-called assault weapons, which hasn't worked in the past, is going to work this time. We think many of those proposals are basically feel-good proposals and what we really need to do is get to the question of why this is happening and what can be done about it."

Resistance to passing a broad gun ban, as was done in 1994 and which remained in place until 2004, places Obama in a tricky position. During the presidential campaign, he said during a debate that "weapons that we designed for soldiers in war theaters don't belong on our streets." And following the Newtown shooting that left 28 dead, he pledged to maximize his political power to prevent further tragedies, obliquely referencing gun control measures.

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"In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, because what choice do we have? We can't accept events like this as routine," he said during a visit to Newtown for a memorial service. "Are we really prepared to say that we're powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after years is somehow the price of our freedom?"

If Obama proposes a ban that is sure to fail, he risks spending political capital that could take away from his other legislative priorities; but if he doesn't propose a ban, he will surely enflame his Democratic base and appear to be timid toward Congress.

Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein is currently working on drafting legislation that would ban assault weapons, though the specifics of the measure are still unknown. Senate aides say her office is working with the White House on the measure, an indication the administration is prepared to endorse it. Vice President Joe Biden, who was tasked with meeting with interest groups and prepping recommendations for the president, will present his package to Obama Tuesday.