Earlier this month, families of Aurora theater shooting victims urged Jim Lehrer, moderator of the presidential debate in Denver, to raise the issue of gun policy in quizzing President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Lehrer didn't do so -- but last night, in the season's second debate. the topic came up, with Obama directly addressing the massacre in the context of a possible assault-weapons ban. Get details and see videos below.
Since the July 20 attack on the Aurora Century 16, during which twelve people died and 58 were injured, Obama and Romney have mostly avoided the subject of gun control, frustrating organizations such as Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which ran ads in Colorado in August urging the candidates to take a stand. Here's the clip in question, which focuses on the shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in Tucscon but mentions Aurora:
Then, on October 1, Aurora family members beseeched Lehrer to bring up gun matters at the Denver debate in a letter on view below in its entirety. It reads in part:
To ignore the problem of gun violence in a state where two of the worst shootings in U.S. history took place -- Aurora and Columbine -- would not only be noticeable by its absence but would slight the memories of our loved ones killed.
The debate takes place at the University of Denver, less than 10 miles from Columbine and only 15 miles from the Aurora Theater where our loved ones were murdered in what was the single worst shooting massacre in American history.
Lehrer didn't follow this advice in Denver. But last night, a member of the audience for debate two, at Hofstra University in New York, which utilized a town-hall format, posed the following question:
President Obama, during the Democratic National Convention in 2008, you stated you wanted to keep AK-47s out of the hands of criminals. What has your administration done or planned to do to limit the availability of assault weapons?
Obama responded by almost immediately referencing his trip to Aurora in the wake of the theater shootings to comfort grieving family members. But shortly thereafter, he made his most explicit comments since the Aurora visit about prohibiting the sale of assault weapons. Here's an excerpt from the complete transcript of this section, on view below:
My belief is that, (A), we have to enforce the laws we've already got, make sure that we're keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, those who are mentally ill. 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. And so what I'm trying to do is to get a broader conversation about how do we reduce the violence generally. Part of it is seeing if we can get an assault weapons ban reintroduced. But part of it is also looking at other sources of the violence.
Romney wasn't nearly as direct. He mostly dodged the issue, suggesting that gun violence can be prevented in part by preserving the two-parent family before pivoting to the controversial Fast and Furious program that was found to have provided weapons to drug gangs in Mexico -- something moderator Candy Crowley pointed out was off-topic.
Of course, mentioning an assault-weapons ban is very different from fighting for one. But the discussion of gun policy last night at least keeps the subject on the national agenda.
Continue to see videos from the debate and a transcript excerpt: The first video below is a snippet that specifically mentions Aurora. That's followed by the complete debate; the gun discussion gets underway just past the one hour, fifteen-minute mark. Below that is the letter from families to Jim Lehrer and the transcript from the appropriate section from last night's debate, courtesy of ABC News.
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Transcript of gun-policy discussion:
CROWLEY: Because what I -- what I want to do, Mr. President, stand there a second, because I want to introduce you to Nina Gonzalez, who brought up a question that we hear a lot, both over the Internet and from this crowd.
QUESTION: President Obama, during the Democratic National Convention in 2008, you stated you wanted to keep AK-47s out of the hands of criminals. What has your administration done or planned to do to limit the availability of assault weapons?
OBAMA: We're a nation that believes in the Second Amendment, and I believe in the Second Amendment. We've got a long tradition of hunting and sportsmen and people who want to make sure they can protect themselves.
But there have been too many instances during the course of my presidency, where I've had to comfort families who have lost somebody. Most recently out in Aurora. You know, just a couple of weeks ago, actually, probably about a month, I saw a mother, who I had met at the bedside of her son, who had been shot in that theater.
And her son had been shot through the head. And we spent some time, and we said a prayer and, remarkably, about two months later, this young man and his mom showed up, and he looked unbelievable, good as new.
But there were a lot of families who didn't have that good fortune and whose sons or daughters or husbands didn't survive.
So my belief is that, (A), we have to enforce the laws we've already got, make sure that we're keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, those who are mentally ill. 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. And so what I'm trying to do is to get a broader conversation about how do we reduce the violence generally. Part of it is seeing if we can get an assault weapons ban reintroduced. But part of it is also looking at other sources of the violence. Because frankly, in my home town of Chicago, there's an awful lot of violence and they're not using AK-47s. They're using cheap hand guns.
And so what can we do to intervene, to make sure that young people have opportunity; that our schools are working; that if there's violence on the streets, that working with faith groups and law enforcement, we can catch it before it gets out of control.
And so what I want is a -- is a comprehensive strategy. Part of it is seeing if we can get automatic weapons that kill folks in amazing numbers out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. But part of it is also going deeper and seeing if we can get into these communities and making sure we catch violent impulses before they occur.
CROWLEY: Governor Romney, the question is about assault weapons, AK-47s.
ROMNEY: Yeah, I'm not in favor of new pieces of legislation on -- 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. What I believe is we have to do, as the president mentioned towards the end of his remarks there, which is to make enormous efforts to enforce the gun laws that we have, and to change the culture of violence that we have.
And you ask how -- how are we going to do that? And there are a number of things. He mentioned good schools. I totally agree. We were able to drive our schools to be number one in the nation in my state. And I believe if we do a better job in education, we'll -- we'll give people the -- the hope and opportunity they deserve and perhaps less violence from that. But let me mention another thing. And that is parents. We need moms and dads, helping to raise kids. Wherever possible the -- the benefit of having two parents in the home, and that's not always possible. A lot of great single moms, single dads. But gosh to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone, that's a great idea.
Because if there's a two parent family, the prospect of living in poverty goes down dramatically. The opportunities that the child will -- will be able to achieve increase dramatically. So we can make changes in the way our culture works to help bring people away from violence and give them opportunity, and bring them in the American system. The -- the greatest failure we've had with regards to -- to gun violence in some respects is what -- what is known as Fast and Furious. Which was a program under this administration, and how it worked exactly I think we don't know precisely, where thousands of automatic, and AK-47 type weapons were -- were given to people that ultimately gave them to -- to drug lords.
They used those weapons against -- against their own citizens and killed Americans with them. And this was a -- this was a program of the government. For what purpose it was put in place, I can't imagine. But it's one of the great tragedies related to violence in our society which has occurred during this administration. Which I think the American people would like to understand fully, it's been investigated to a degree, but -- but the administration has carried out executive privilege to prevent all of the information from coming out.
I'd like to understand who it was that did this, what the idea was behind it, why it led to the violence, thousands of guns going to Mexican drug lords. OBAMA: Candy?
CROWLEY: Governor, Governor, if I could, the question was about these assault weapons that once were once banned and are no longer banned.
I know that you signed an assault weapons ban when you were in Massachusetts, obviously, with this question, you no longer do support that. Why is that, given the kind of violence that we see sometimes with these mass killings? Why is it that you have changed your mind?
ROMNEY: Well, Candy, actually, in my state, the pro-gun folks and the anti-gun folks came together and put together a piece of legislation. And it's referred to as an assault weapon ban, but it had, at the signing of the bill, both the pro-gun and the anti-gun people came together, because it provided opportunities for both that both wanted.
There were hunting opportunities, for instance, that haven't previously been available and so forth, so it was a mutually agreed- upon piece of legislation. That's what we need more of, Candy. What we have right now in Washington is a place that's gridlocked.
CROWLEY: So I could -- if you could get people to agree to it, you would be for it?
ROMNEY: We have --
ROMNEY: -- we haven't had the leadership in Washington to work on a bipartisan basis. I was able to do that in my state and bring these two together.
CROWLEY: Quickly, Mr. President.
OBAMA: The -- first of all, I think Governor Romney was for an assault weapons ban before he was against it. And he said that the reason he changed his mind was, in part, because he was seeking the endorsement of the National Rifle Association. So that's on the record.
But I think that one area we agree on is the important of parents and the importance of schools, because I do believe that if our young people have opportunity, then they are less likely to engage in these kinds of violent acts. We're not going to eliminate everybody who is mentally disturbed and we have got to make sure they don't get weapons.
OBAMA: because I do believe that if our young people have opportunity, then they're less likely to engage in these kind of violent acts.
We're not going to eliminate everybody who is mentally disturbed, and we've got to make sure they don't get weapons. But we can make a difference in terms ensuring that every young person in America, regardless of where they come from, what they look like, have a chance to succeed.
And, Candy, we haven't had a chance to talk about education much, but I think it is very important to understand that the reforms we've put in place, working with 46 governors around the country, are seeing schools that are some of the ones that are the toughest for kids starting to succeed. We're starting to see gains in math and science.
When it comes to community colleges, we are setting up programs, including with Nassau Community College, to retrain workers, including young people who may have dropped out of school but now are getting another chance, training them for the jobs that exist right now.
And in fact, employers are looking for skilled workers. And so we're matching them up. Giving them access to higher education. As I said, we have made sure that millions of young people are able to get an education that they weren't able to get before.
CROWLEY: Mr. President, I have to -- I have to move you along here.