Yesterday, the White House made it clear that they did not intend to pursue additional gun control measures in the aftermath of the horrific shootings in Aurora, Colorado. Although this insulates the president from accusations of politicizing a national tragedy, the decision was probably motivated by political considerations. While a ban on high-capacity magazines and assault weapons is potentially quite popular—popular enough that on Friday I argued that the President could safely pursue an assault gun ban—decision-makers in Washington and Chicago saw things differently. The likely reason? Pro-gun control voters already support Obama.
Take a look at Obama's existing coalition. According to state and national polls, Obama is holding relatively firm among college educated suburbanites and especially women. These groups are among the most supportive of gun control, suggesting that the president has already won over many of the voters who would be swayed by a push for the assault gun ban. At the same time, plenty of white working class voters remain undecided, so the president would risk alienating potential voters if the assault weapon ban devolved into a broader debate about gun control. Now, gun control is not so unpopular that it would devastate Obama’s chances, but given his strength among the voters who support gun control, a broad gun control debate would offer relatively few political benefits to the president. And although Obama could try to keep the debate narrowly focused on assault weapons or high-capacity magazines, conservatives would wisely attempt to broaden the debate by characterizing a relatively specific proposal as a broader indication of hostility to personal firearms. While a narrow debate on assault guns helps Obama, the president doesn't benefit from being perceived as pro-gun control.
And even though discussing an assault weapons ban would probably still benefit the president in the suburbs ringing several cities in critical states, there are also potential gains from staying on the political sidelines and exercising non-partisan presidential leadership. Presidents are often at their best as a consoling figure after tragedy, and Obama is no exception—his approval ratings after the attempted Gabrielle Giffords assassination were only surpassed by the Osama Bin Laden raid, and just barely. Presidents look best when they appear presidential, and pushing the assault gun ban would forfeit that opportunity.
To be sure, there is a decent political case for pushing an assault gun ban, and Obama's decision to ignore that case and stay on the sidelines speaks to Chicago's confidence in their ability to win suburban women. If Obama was on shakier ground among college educated women, he almost certainly would have pursued gun control. But the Obama campaign has clearly calculated that the risk of alienating undecided white working class voters with a broad debate about gun control outweighs already realized gains among white college educated women, let alone the attendant benefit of appearing presidential after a tragedy.