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Gun Control A Surprise Issue In Presidential Debate


During last night's debate, one topic came up that both candidates have barely discussed this election season, gun control. Here's the question put to President Obama.

NINA GONZALES: What has your administration done or planned to do to limit the availability of assault weapons?

BLOCK: And the president answered this way.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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.

BLOCK: And Mitt Romney followed with this.

MITT ROMNEY: I'm not in favor of new pieces of legislation on guns and taking guns away or making certain guns illegal. We, of course, don't want to have automatic weapons, and that's already illegal in this country, to have automatic weapons.

BLOCK: We're going to take a closer look now at both candidates' records on gun control. And to do that, I'm joined by Rebecca Metzler of U.S. News and World Report. Welcome, Rebecca.

REBECCA METZLER: Thanks very much.

BLOCK: Let's start with what we just heard from Mitt Romney, that it's already illegal in this country to have automatic weapons. And by automatic weapons, we mean a gun that fires continuously if the trigger is held down. Is that right? Is it illegal in this country to have an automatic weapon?

METZLER: It's not entirely correct. For those who had automatic weapons prior to the ban, which happened in 1986, they're still allowed to have those as long as they're registered with the federal government. Those same weapons, prior to 1986 that are registered with the federal government, are also allowed to be bought and sold if you jump through some hoops.

What is true is that no new automatic weapons are allowed to be brought in or bought and sold in the United States.

BLOCK: So, not technically illegal to have one.

METZLER: It's not technically illegal to have one.

BLOCK: Let's talk about the assault weapons ban that was the point of the question and that included certain semi-automatic firearms. President Obama criticized Mitt Romney last night for being for an assault weapons ban before he was against it. What is Mitt Romney's position or what has it been on banning certain assault-style guns?

METZLER: Well, when he ran for Senate against Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts in 1994, he was running as a moderate Republican, obviously in a very Democratic state, so he specifically said things like, I don't line up with the NRA on a lot of things. Later when he ran for and then was elected governor of Massachusetts in 2002, he worked with both pro-gun control groups and gun advocacy rights groups in Massachusetts.

He really did do what he said he did in the debate, which is try and get both sides to agree on a piece of legislation. We can sort of speculate about why that was advantageous for him to do, but at the end of the day, he did sign a ban on assault weapons, including Uzis and AK-47s. But there were also concessions that were made to the sportsman's community in terms of extending the length of time that your firearm identification card that you have to have to possess a weapon, from four years to six years, and creating grace periods for renewals and expired licenses.

So there's a little bit of give and take on that.

BLOCK: Let's about the president's record here. Before he was elected president, Barack Obama was an outspoken advocate for gun control. He's been quieter since he's been in the White House. What is his track record as president?

METZLER: His track record is basically absent on this issue. I think there are a lot of pro-gun control folks that are disappointed with where he's been on this issue. He makes a point of, obviously, when there are national tragedies, be it what we saw in Aurora or even, I think, talking about gun control that came up with the Trayvon Martin shooting, he makes a point of talking about the families and the lives of the people who are affected by these tragedies, but he emphasizes the importance of good education, good family. He doesn't talk about specifically restricting any gun rights.

BLOCK: Going back to that original question, is there any momentum to reintroduce the ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004?

METZLER: You know, it's hard to point to any momentum when both leaders of their respective parties are not talking about it and are not pushing for it. So, certainly there are groups that would like to see that happen, but whether or not they can get any traction, it doesn't seem likely.

BLOCK: Rebecca Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News and World Report. Rebecca, thanks very much.

METZLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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