It was the most emotional question of the second U.S. presidential debate; the woman posing it was seemingly on the verge of tears.

"President Obama," Nina Gonzalez, asked, "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?"

Tellingly, President Barack Obama's initial reaction was to praise the country's tradition of gun rights and emphasize that "I believe in the second Amendment." From there, Obama pivoted to a story about comforting the relatives of Americans injured during a shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., earlier this summer.

And while Obama did seem to endorse renewing an expired ban on assault weapons, he did so in exceedingly cautious language. Rather than forcefully calling for the measure, he fell back on his role as a negotiator seeking common ground, saying one part of limiting violence was "seeing if we can get an assault weapons ban reintroduced."

The allusion to an assault weapons ban came as a small footnote to a larger lecture on the pathologies of violence running through American society. Obama talked about stronger schools, better opportunities for young people and robust community organizations.

Mitt Romney also talked about building stronger communities, and he included a paean to family stability when he answered a related question ("If there's a two parent family, the prospect of living in poverty goes down dramatically") before invoking "Fast and Furious," a botched gunrunning program that has become a favorite punching bag for Republicans seeking to expose the administration's incompetence. (A recent probe cleared Attorney General Eric Holder of any involvement.)

The exchange underscored the extent to which, in the battle over gun control, guns have won. Obama reiterated his call to "enforce the laws we've already got," essentially embracing the status quo. That mirrored the president's response to the massacre in Aurora, in which he failed to call for new legislation.

What's more, Obama's unwillingness to advocate for more gun control hasn't stopped the gun lobby from circulating paranoid theories about the president's true intentions. Critics of the administration theorized that Fast and Furious was designed to fail so the president could call for tighter gun control. National Rifle Association President Wayne LaPierre has written that Obama, in a second term, would hollow out the Second Amendment "completely and forever." And Romney himself has gotten on board.

"We need a president who will stand up for the rights of hunters, sportsmen, and those seeking to protect their homes and their families. President Obama has not; I will," Romney told audience members at an NRA meeting in April. "And if we are going to safeguard our Second Amendment, it is time to elect a president who will defend the rights President Obama ignores or minimizes. I will."

But Obama's debate response reinforced the reality of the situation: no president, Democrat or Republican, is about to come for America's guns.