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Colo. attacks unlikely to affect gun laws

Little about the nation's gun laws has changed in the wake of recent high-profile incidents of gun violence, and all indications are that the movie theater shooting last week in Aurora, Colo., isn't likely to affect the gun control debate, either.

Outside of a few isolated, expected voices -- primarily New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- few political leaders have called for stronger gun laws after a massacre that left 12 dead.

White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters traveling to Aurora with President Obama on Sunday that the president "believes we need to take steps that protect Second Amendment rights of the American people but that ensure that we are not allowing weapons into the hands of individuals who should not, by existing law, obtain those weapons."

"The president's view is that we can take steps to keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have them under existing law," Carney added. "And that's his focus right now."

The administration’s reluctance to push for tighter gun laws following a major gun violence episode reflects how far the political debate over gun owners' rights has shifted in the past two decades.

When Democratic Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was nearly killed after being shot in the head at a constituent event in January of 2011, it did very little to affect gun laws despite the fact that the impact of that attack was arguably felt more intensely by the men and women who write the nation's laws.

The Obama administration had supported reinstating elements of the assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004. But even a friendly Democratic Congress early in the administration failed to muster the votes for any such law.

Part of the reason for the shift toward more permissive gun laws involves how effectively Republicans and the National Rifle Association have used gun rights as a wedge issue against candidates in elections. While some Democrats remain ardent proponents of stricter gun control, conservative Democrats have deflected the issue by embracing Second Amendment rights on the campaign trail. Think back, for instance, to a 2010 campaign commercial featuring West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin – then seeking a Senate seat – literally shooting a paper copy of the cap-and-trade environmental regulation bill.

Obama got a taste of potent gun politics, too, during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. Obama weathered a small firestorm when he was quoted reflecting about the resentments of Pennsylvania voters whose communities had endured difficult conditions during the Bush administration.

"It's not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations," Obama, then an Illinois senator, was quoted as saying.

Obama's general-election opponent, Mitt Romney, had been an advocate for enforcing existing gun laws during his time in office, signed his own assault weapons ban into law as governor and reiterated his support for the national ban in 2007.

But Romney has pivoted toward emphasizing existing laws, rather than proposing new regulations for gun owners.

"We have a right in this country to bear arms, and I know that there are people who think that somehow that should change, and they keep looking for laws for a way to stop awful things from happening," he said in February in Ohio. "And there are awful things that happen. But there already are laws that are designed to protect people, and unfortunately people violate the laws. So trying to find more laws to change bad behavior isn’t the answer, the answer is to find the people who are inclined to bad behavior."