WHEN IT COMES to gun control, the Democratic Party is a house divided against itself. That helps explain Barack Obama's dizzyingly inconsistent positions on District of Columbia v. Heller, the landmark Second Amendment case decided by the Supreme Court last week.
As a candidate for the Illinois Legislature in the 1990s, Obama had supported legislation to "ban the manufacture, sale, and possession of handguns," so it wasn't surprising that he endorsed the gun ban being challenged in Heller while campaigning for president. In November, for example, his campaign told the Chicago Tribune that "Obama believes the D.C. handgun law is constitutional." In February, when a questioner during a televised forum said, "You support the D.C. handgun ban," Obama readily agreed: "Right."
By March, however, his spokesman would no longer say whether Obama considered the gun ban constitutional, and when the senator was asked about it during a debate in April, he refused to give a clear answer on the grounds that "I obviously haven't listened to the briefs and looked at all the evidence." Still, when the court issued its 5-4 ruling last Thursday, Obama claimed that his views had been vindicated. "I have always believed," his statement began, "that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms." On the other hand, reported the Associated Press, "the campaign would not answer directly . . . when asked whether the candidate agreed with the court."
This is not just the customary political choreography whereby Democratic presidential candidates dance to the left during the primary election season, then pirouette back to the center for the general election. (Republicans twirl the other way.) Guns are a particularly thorny issue for Democrats, who have long been the party of gun control, and whose strong left wing detests firearms and looks down on the "gun nuts" who enjoy them. Liberal Democrats have generally seen the Second Amendment as an embarrassing constitutional anachronism, not a guarantee of essential liberty. They nurse a singular loathing for the National Rifle Association. And they are sure that more guns in private hands can only mean more death and violent crime.
The problem for Democrats is that such views put them well beyond the American mainstream. There may be as many as 283 million privately owned firearms in the United States, and nearly half of all US households own at least one gun. Even before the Supreme Court ruling, a large majority of Americans -- 73 percent, according to Gallup -- believed the Second Amendment guaranteed the right of private citizens to own guns. Nearly 7 in 10 opposed any law making handgun possession illegal.
Given such widespread pro-gun sentiment, a political party inclined to demonize guns or gun owners can expect to alienate many voters. In 1994, within months of enacting a ban on assault weapons, Democrats lost their majorities in both houses of Congress -- majorities it would take more than a decade to win back. Their "inability to consistently win elections in places where gun shops outnumber Starbucks," the respected political analyst Charlie Cook wrote in National Journal during their long exile, "is a big reason the party controls neither the House nor the Senate."
Some Democrats have worked to shed the image as the party of gun-haters. Running for president in 2004, Senator John F. Kerry made a point of donning orange and hoisting a shotgun for a very public day of duck hunting in southern Ohio. When Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana ran for reelection two years later, their TV ads depicted them using guns. (Schweitzer, an avid hunter, likes to say he has "more guns than I need but not as many as I want.") More than 60 Democrats were endorsed by the NRA in the midterm election of 2006 -- the election, perhaps not coincidentally, in which their party regained control of Congress.
Still, for many Democratic liberals, the antigun animus is reflexive. Senators Ted Kennedy and Dianne Feinstein wasted no time deploring the court's ruling in Heller last week; Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago denounced it as "very frightening." Over the years, such attitudes have been a political boon to Republicans, helping them paint Democrats as out-of-step elitists who hate something millions of Americans love. John McCain's statement hailing the decision pointedly referred to Obama's infamous statement that Middle Americans "cling to guns or religion" when "they get bitter."
All of which makes it ironic that the impact of last week's decision may be to deprive the GOP of a valuable political weapon. By ending the debate over whether the Second Amendment confers an individual right to own guns, the justices have just made it safer for gun owners to vote Democratic. McCain cheered the court's ruling, but Obama may prove the biggest winner of all.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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