By Sam Youngman
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney engaged in a rare tussle over gun control on Tuesday, and Obama opened the door to pushing for a ban on assault weapons if he wins a second term.
During their second election debate, both men largely danced around a gun-control question, a reflection of how they are wary of offending voters who support gun rights.
However, Obama did say that he would back an assault-weapons ban like the one President Bill Clinton signed in 1994. That law expired in 2004 without being renewed by Congress.
Romney signed such a ban as governor of Massachusetts, but he has indicated that he would not support banning assault weapons as president. He did not say why his stance is different now, but in winning the Republican nomination he courted conservative voters who generally oppose gun restrictions, and he was endorsed by the influential National Rifle Association.
The president, once an ardent proponent of the assault-weapons ban, has done little to push such a proposal forward during his time in the White House. When Attorney General Eric Holder mentioned the possibility in early 2009, the White House backed away from such talk.
But on Tuesday night, Obama appeared to endorse a push for the ban if he is elected to a second term.
"What I'm trying to do is to get a broader conversation about how do we reduce the violence generally," Obama said during the debate at Hofstra University. "Part of it is seeing if we can get an assault weapons ban reintroduced."
Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, said it was "tough to take the president seriously on gun control, given how low a priority it's been on his domestic agenda, and how low a priority it has been for his party's agenda on his watch."
Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said he was encouraged to hear Obama mention the ban.
"It's not surprising," Gross said. "We're very confident that he knows in his heart what the right thing to do on this issue is."
Romney appeared eager to change the conversation away from gun control, saying that the United States should "make enormous efforts to enforce the gun laws that we have and to change the culture of violence that we have."
"Yeah, I'm not in favor of new pieces of legislation on guns and taking guns away or making certain guns illegal," he said.
When the moderator, CNN's Candy Crowley, mentioned that Romney supported and signed such a ban when he was governor of Massachusetts, Romney pointed to the bipartisan support the measure enjoyed.
"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," Romney said.
Obama used his opponent's answer to continue to try and portray Romney as a flip-flopper.
"First of all, I think Governor Romney was for an assault weapons ban before he was against it," Obama said, mocking the attack Republicans used on Democratic candidate Senator John Kerry's stance on the Iraq war during the 2004 presidential campaign.
(Editing by David Lindsey and David Brunnstrom)