WASHINGTON (AP) — The shooting that killed 12 people at a Colorado movie theater sidetracked the U.S. presidential race but President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney both stayed away from the polarizing topic of gun control.
The massacre obliged both candidates to cast aside the increasingly bitter tone of the race and reach for a rare moment of American harmony. Obama and Romney swiftly stripped their day of overt campaigning that surely would have seemed crass given the enormity of the tragedy.
"There are going to be other days for politics," Obama said from one key electoral state, Florida. From another one, New Hampshire, Romney said much the same.
A man opened fire on people watching the new Batman movie in an Aurora, Colorado, theater outside Denver. Twelve people were killed and dozens more were wounded by a suspect said to be using an assault rifle, a shotgun and a handgun in the attack.
"This is a time for each of us to look into our hearts and remember how much we love one another, and how much we love and how much we care for our great country," Romney said at a podium stripped of campaign paraphernalia, in front of a large American flag.
Amid their calls for unity and prayer, neither Obama nor Romney said anything of gun control, an issue that has been all but absent from the campaign debate this year. Both men have shifted with the times, moving away from stances that favored tougher gun control laws.
The issue may rise anew.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a gun control advocate, said, "You know, soothing words are nice, but maybe it's time that the two people who want to be president of the United States stand up and tell us what they are going to do about it."
Twenty years ago, polls showed that a substantial majority of Americans — nearly 80 percent in 1990 — supported stricter limits on guns. Now Americans appear evenly divided between those who want tougher restrictions and those who want to stick with current laws.
Gun rights groups are a powerful lobby in the United States, where easy access to guns is a way of life in many of the more conservative and rural areas. The right to bear arms is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, alongside such basic rights as free speech and freedom of religion.
During his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama called for reinstating a federal ban on assault weapons that began during the administration of former President Bill Clinton and expired under President George W. Bush. But since his election he hasn't tried to get that done or pushed other gun control proposals, either.
The powerful National Rifle Association has attacked Obama as an anti-gun zealot nonetheless.
At the same time, the president has deeply disappointed gun-control advocates. In its most recent assessment, in 2010, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence failed Obama on seven issues it deemed important.
"As someone who has suffered the lasting impact of gun violence, and president of Brady, I can tell you that we don't want sympathy. We want action," Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said in a statement Friday.
As a U.S. senator, Obama voted to leave gun makers and dealers open to civil lawsuits, and as an Illinois state lawmaker he supported a ban on all forms of semiautomatic weapons and tighter state restrictions generally on firearms.
Romney backed some gun control measures when he was governor of Massachusetts, and when he challenged Sen. Edward Kennedy in 1994 he declared, "I don't line up with the NRA."
This spring, competing for the Republican presidential nomination, Romney told the NRA he was a guardian of the Second Amendment of the Constitution that guarantees the right to bear arms.
Following last year's killing of six people and the wounding of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona, Obama called for a series of steps to "keep those irresponsible, law-breaking few from getting their hands on a gun in the first place."
Among those steps was a better background check system. And White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday that system has improved.
But the administration has offered no legislation or detailed updates about how it is pursuing the president's previous promises.
"The president believes that we need to take common-sense measures that protect Second Amendment rights of Americans, while ensuring that those who should not have guns under existing law do not get them," Carney said.
Others, including Mayor Bloomberg, were looking for more specificity. The question is simple, he said in a radio interview: "What are they going to do about guns?"
Associated Press writers Ken Thomas and Tamara Lush in Fort Myers, Florida, Steve Peoples in Bow, New Hampshire, Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Mark Smith, Laurie Kellman, and David Espo in Washington contributed to this report.