In a revealing exchange about gun control at Tuesday's presidential debate, a split emerged between President Obama's and Mitt Romney positions on banning assault weapons.
The candidates were responding to a question about the availability of assault weapons in the United States. Though such weapons—which include guns like the AK-47—were made illegal in the United States under the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, Congress allowed that law to expire 10 years later. At Tuesday's debate, President Obama suggested that he was in favor of reinstating the ban.
"[W]hat I'm trying to do is to get a broader conversation about how do we reduce the violence generally," he said. "Part of it is seeing if we can get an assault weapons ban reintroduced."
Romney replied that he was "not in favor" of new gun control legislation. When moderator Candy Crowley pointed out that he had signed an assault weapons ban into law when he was governor of Massachusetts, he sought to portray the episode as an example of compromise, rather than support for gun control.
"Well, Candy, actually, in my state, the pro-gun folks and the anti-gun folks came together and put together a piece of legislation," Romney said. "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."
When Crowley asked if he would support the same legislation on a federal level, Romney demurred, saying, "we haven't had the leadership in Washington to work on a bipartisan basis."
Mark Kleiman, a criminal justice expert and professor of public policy at UCLA, said, "I think the president is exactly right that what matters is dangerous weapons in the hands of dangerous people." While Kleiman said that the underlying causes of gun violence could be mitigated "without changing the supply of weapons," he added that, "if you give people higher capacity weapons, they can kill more people."
"Britain has a lot of stabbings—it's in some sense a very violent place—but you can't kill 37 people with a knife," said Kleiman on the subject of assault weapons. However, he said Obama was unlikely to propose renewing the assault weapons ban, because he'd be unable to get it through Congress.
Kleiman also scoffed at Romney's explanation for why he no longer supports such a ban. "If it's a bad idea now, bipartisanship didn't make it a good idea at the time," he said.
The gun control advocates at the Brady Campaign applauded Obama's support for renewing the ban on assault weapons. "The overwhelming majority of Americans, including gun owners, understand that these kinds of military-style weapons don’t belong on our streets and in our communities, and that stronger background checks don’t have anything to do with the Second Amendment," said Brady Campaign President Dan Gross in a statement. And Gross chided Romney's reluctance "to offer the leadership or solutions required to make our communities and children safer."
NRA spokesperson Andrew Arulanandam said, "I think, in a rare moment of candor, President Obama admitted what the NRA has known all along: That he does, in fact, support the most draconian form of gun control, and that's the gun ban."
Both candidates also offered suggestions for how to deal with "other sources of violence," in Obama's words. The president emphasized education reform, saying that young people are less inclined to gun violence when they have opportunities to succeed by legal means. "We can make a difference in terms of ensuring that every young person in America, regardless of where they come from, what they look like, have a chance to succeed," he said.
Romney agreed on tackling the root causes of gun control, but offered different suggestions for doing so. A good way to make sure young people have opportunities that keep them from resorting to violence, he said, is to make sure they grow up in two-parent homes. "We need moms and dads, helping to raise kid," he said. "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."
But neither candidate addressed what some experts believe is a major driver of violence: the War on Drugs. Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron said that drug criminalization had to be part of the discussion about violent crime reduction. "There's plenty of violence that I think has nothing to do with prohibition ... but there's a substantial part of violence that's due to prohibition," he said. "And the part that we can most easily address is due to prohibition."
Miron pointed out that violent crime in the United States has declined dramatically over the few decades, with the murder rate alone being cut in half between 1991 and 2009. Part of the reason, Miron said, is because the United States has not been waging the War on Drugs as aggressively. "It is not the same priority it was in the Reagan-Bush years," he said.
As for Obama and Romney's proposals regarding education and the family, Miron was skeptical. "I guess I don't know of work which would point at an obvious or simple link between improved education or reduced violence," he said. And in response to Romney's claim that encouraging marriage and two-parent households would reduce violence: "I would be surprised if there was evidence that backed that up."
Kleiman agreed on both counts. Reducing crime through greater educational opportunities was a "pretty far-fetched" proposal, he said. He dismissed Romney's proposal for encouraging two-parent households as "insincere." Romney is "committed to a domestic budget that would limit any money you could spend that would do that," he said.
"The main things we can do about violence won't be about guns," he said. "They will be about doing gun violence better and, in the long run, doing other social policy things."