WASHINGTON — Even as the issue of guns shifts to the forefront of the presidential campaign, the White House and the Senate's top Democrat made it clear Thursday that new gun legislation will not be on the political agenda this year. Instead, President Barack Obama intends to focus on other ways to combat gun violence — a position not unlike that of his rival, Mitt Romney.
Days after the mass shootings in Colorado, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama still supports a ban on the sale of assault weapons, a restriction that expired in 2004. But he added: "There are things we can do short of legislation and short of gun laws that can reduce violence in our society."
Carney's comments came the day after Obama, in a speech to an African-American group Wednesday in New Orleans, embraced some degree of additional restrictions on guns. He acknowledged that not enough had been done to keep weapons out of the hands of criminals and pledged to work with lawmakers from both parties to move forward on the matter.
Carney also spoke as a prominent gun control group called on Obama and Romney to lead a search for solutions to gun violence. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said both candidates owe voters concrete plans and appealed to them not to duck the issue.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday that the Senate would not consider the gun issue this year, even though he agreed with Obama's remarks in New Orleans.
"With the schedule we have, we're not going to even have a debate on gun control," Reid told reporters.
The White House and Reid's stance illustrate a reality in Washington, where advocating for restrictions on gun ownership is viewed as a political liability.
Acknowledging opposition in Congress to new limits, Carney said Obama will work to enhance existing gun laws.
"While there is that stalemate in Congress there are other things we can do," he said.
Obama told the National Urban League in New Orleans that he was willing to work with both parties in Congress to find a national consensus that addresses violence. That speech came six days after the shooting in an Aurora, Col., movie theater that left 12 people dead and injured dozens more.
In an interview Thursday with CNN, Romney said new laws won't keep people from carrying out "terrible acts." He cited the case of Timothy McVeigh, who was convicted and put to death for the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people.
"How many people did he kill with fertilizer, with products that can be purchased legally anywhere in the world? He was able to carry out vast mayhem," Romney said. "Somehow thinking that laws against the instruments of violence will make violence go away, I think is misguided."
In a separate interview Wednesday, Romney said many weapons used by the shooting suspect in Aurora, Colo., were obtained illegally, though authorities have said the firearms used were purchased legally.
"The illegality the governor is referencing is the ordinances, the devices that were in the home," said campaign spokesman Danny Diaz. "He was not referencing the weapons carried to the theater."
Obama called for stepped-up background checks for people who want to buy guns and restrictions to keep mentally unbalanced individuals from buying weapons. He said those steps "shouldn't be controversial."
Despite the Second Amendment's protection of gun rights, Obama said: "I also believe that a lot of gun owners would agree that an AK-47 belongs in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of criminals — that they belong on the battlefield of war, not on the streets of our cities."
Neither candidate strayed significantly Wednesday from previously held positions on gun violence. But their pointed comments revived a debate — if perhaps only briefly — that has steadily faded to the background in national politics and been virtually non-existent in the 2012 campaign.
The White House in particular has faced fresh questions since the shootings about whether Obama, a strong supporter of gun control as a senator from Illinois, would make an election-year push for stricter measures.
Following last year's killing of six people and the wounding of then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, Obama called for steps to "keep those irresponsible, law-breaking few from getting their hands on a gun in the first place." But he has advanced no legislative proposals since then.
It's been more than a decade since gun control advocates had a realistic hope of getting the type of legislation they seek, despite predictions that each shocking outburst of violence would lead to action.
In his remarks, Obama acknowledged a national pattern of calling for tougher gun restrictions in the wake of violent crimes but not following through.
"Too often, those efforts are defeated by politics and by lobbying and eventually by the pull of our collective attention elsewhere," he said.
Romney was pressed on gun control during an interview with NBC News in London, where he is attending the Olympics and kicking off a three-country foreign trip. The presumptive Republican nominee said changing laws won't "make all bad things go away."
Romney was asked about his tenure as Massachusetts governor, when he signed a bill that banned some assault-style weapons like the type the Colorado shooter is alleged to have used. At the time, Romney described such guns as "instruments of destruction with the sole purpose of hunting down and killing people."
Asked if he stood by those comments, Romney mentioned the Massachusetts ban but said he didn't think current laws needed to change.
"I don't happen to believe that America needs new gun laws. A lot of what this ... young man did was clearly against the law. But the fact that it was against the law did not prevent it from happening," Romney said.
Authorities have said the suspected Colorado shooter, James Holmes, methodically stockpiled weapons and explosives at work and home in recent months. He bought thousands of rounds of ammunition and a shotgun, a semiautomatic rifle and two Glock pistols, authorities said.
comments on this story
Obama addressed the nationwide troubles in front of the Urban League in part because blacks, who make up the bulk of the organization's membership, have been disproportionately affected by gun violence. While mass shootings like the one in Colorado receive widespread attention, Obama said roughly the same number of young people are killed in the U.S. by guns every day and a half.
"For every Columbine or Virginia Tech, there are dozens gunned down on the streets of Chicago and Atlanta, and here in New Orleans," he said. "For every Tucson or Aurora, there is daily heartbreak over young Americans shot in Milwaukee or Cleveland."
Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC