Predicting that Barack Obama “would be the most anti-gun president in American history,” the National Rifle Association has announced plans to spend $15 million to help defeat the Democratic presidential hopeful.
Obama has said he has “no intention of taking away folks’ guns” and that he believes strongly in the Second Amendment, the right to keep and bear arms. But his apparent support for strict handgun bans in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere worries gun advocacy groups such as the NRA.
Obama’s mixed messages on the issue surfaced in June, when he expressed qualified agreement with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that Second Amendment rights belong not only to government-controlled militias but also to individual Americans.
“I have always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms,” Obama said of the ruling. “But I also identify with the need for crime-ravaged communities to save their children from the violence that plagues our streets through common-sense, effective safety measures. The Supreme Court has now endorsed that view.”
The ruling, in the case of District of Columbia vs. Heller, struck down a restrictive gun control law in the nation’s capital. Four months before the court case, however, Obama expressed support for those restrictions on handgun ownership in the capital.
“You support the D.C. handgun ban, and you’ve said that it’s constitutional?” interviewer Leon Harris asked Obama during a Feb. 12 interview on ABC’s affiliate in Washington.
“Right, right,” replied the Illinois senator, nodding his head.
The D.C. law banned “handgun possession in the home” and required that rifles or shotguns be disassembled or rendered inoperable with trigger locks at all times. This violated the Second Amendment because it prohibited keeping firearms usable for self-defense, a majority of five justices held.
“As president,” Obama said in response to the ruling, “I will uphold the constitutional rights of law-abiding gun owners, hunters, and sportsmen. I know that what works in Chicago may not work in Cheyenne.”
“Reason” magazine’s Jacob Sullum noted that Obama’s response highlights his “peculiar view that the extent of an American’s constitutional rights depends on where he lives.”
In the recent past, Obama has praised highly restrictive gun laws in D.C. and in Chicago. The NRA said it aims to make voters aware of where Obama stood before his recent near silence about gun rights and restrictions as a presidential candidate. His past could be a prologue to how, if president, he would prompt lawmaking, use regulatory agencies, or select federal judges and Supreme Court justices who could affirm or overturn the individual rights interpretation of the Second Amendment.
Obama and most other Democratic politicians have become gun-shy for good reason. In 2000 Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore shot himself in the foot when he strongly advocated more gun control.
“Democrats believe that we should fight gun crime on all fronts – with stronger laws and stronger enforcement,” read the 2000 Democratic Party Platform. “Democrats fought for and passed the Brady Law and the Assault Weapons Ban . . . Now we must do even more . . . We support more federal gun prosecutors, ATF [federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms] agents and inspectors, and giving states and communities another 10,000 prosecutors to fight gun crime.”
But Gore lost three states that would have made defeat in Florida irrelevant to his becoming president: Arkansas, West Virginia, and Gore’s home state, Tennessee. In all three, analysts concluded, hard-working, blue-collar Democratic workers turned against Gore because they were avid hunters who wanted no more gun-control laws. Union workers are a key Democratic constituency, but 54 percent of union households own a gun.
Little wonder, then, that in 2004, urbane Bostonian Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, dressed in camouflage and went shotgun hunting accompanied by press photographers. Or that, after falling short in Super Tuesday’s primaries in February this year, candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton eagerly told an Indiana audience how her father taught her to shoot and a Wisconsin crowd how she once surprised male companions by blasting a mallard duck out of the sky.
“I disagree with Senator Obama’s assertion that people in our country cling to guns,” Clinton declared last April. “People enjoy hunting and shooting because it’s an important part of who they are. Not because they are bitter.”
She was referring to a statement Obama expected no one to hear except the wealthy San Francisco donors to whom he made it. “It’s not surprising they get bitter,” Obama said of blue-collar Americans. “They cling to guns, or religion.”
Although Obama says one thing in public and another in private, the NRA aims to define him by the kinds of legislation for which he has spoken and voted.
When he was a candidate for the Illinois Senate in 1996, a political questionnaire in his name answered “Yes” to a question of whether supported state legislation to “ban the manufacture, sale and possession of handguns?” When this was reported, Obama’s campaign claimed that a staffer had filled out the questionnaire and given answers the candidate never approved.
“No, my writing wasn’t on that particular questionnaire,” Obama told ABC News anchor Charlie Gibson. “As I said, I have never favored an all-out ban on handguns.”
But Factcheck.org said, “Actually, Obama’s writing was on the 1996 document.” Factcheck.org, of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, described his statement as misleading. A margin note on the questionnaire in Obama’s handwriting indicated his approval. The journal Politico also confirmed that Obama had verbally verified his views with members of the liberal group that gave this questionnaire to state candidates.
During Obama’s time on the board of the liberal Joyce Foundation, he “oversaw the distribution of $18 million to gun-ban groups, including major funding for the Violence Policy Center,” according to the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre. This is more than the NRA plans to spend in 2008 to advertise its critique of Obama. “Before he ran for public office, Obama was considered the prime candidate to lead that deep-pocketed anti-gun money machine,” LaPierre wrote.
As a member of the Illinois Senate, Obama voted for a bill to ban and confiscate assault weapons that the NRA said was so poorly drafted that “it would have also banned most semiauto and single and double barrel shotguns commonly used by sportsmen.”
Someone should tell Mr. Obama’s running mate, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, who used to shoot off his mouth by boasting, “I’m the guy who originally wrote the assault weapon ban,” but who told a Virginia audience in September how much he loves his “little over and under.”
“Barack Obama ain’t taking my shotguns,” Biden told the crowd. “If he tries to fool with my Beretta, he’s got a problem.” None of the firearms-ignorant reporters asked Biden why, as a longtime Democratic ally of organized labor, he bought and was promoting a shotgun made in Italy, like all Beretta over-and-unders, rather than in the U.S.A., by American craftsmen.
Obama favors strict controls on both the keeping and bearing of arms, according to the NRA’s documentation.
“I am not in favor of concealed weapons,” he told the Pittsburgh Tribune. “I think that creates a potential atmosphere where more innocent people could [get shot during] altercations.”
Despite his statement that “Chicago is different from Cheyenne,” the Feb. 20, 2004, Chicago Tribune quoted Obama saying: “National legislation will prevent other states’ flawed concealed-weapons laws from threatening the safety of Illinois residents.” In other words, he backed federal legislation to abolish local and state laws that now permit the concealed carrying of handguns.
Obama also has supported legislation to ban gun stores within 5 miles of any school or park, which the NRA plausibly argues could close down 90 percent of all existing gun stores in America.
Following the example of President Bill Clinton, who systematically used lawsuits and regulatory agencies to intimidate and nearly bankrupt weapons manufacturer Smith & Wesson, Obama voted to allow what the NRA calls “reckless lawsuits designed to bankrupt the firearms industry.” Obama also voted to make homeowners guilty of a felony if their gun is stolen from their home and then used to harm anyone, thereby making it dangerous for any law-abiding citizen merely to own a gun.
Obama, as NRA documents depict him, is far more extreme than ordinary liberals who favor only gun registration and background checks that could deny firearm purchases to those accused, but not convicted, of crimes such as spousal abuse.
Obama has advocated limiting gun purchases to one a month; restricting how many bullets a gun may carry; requiring technologies that permit a gun to be fired only by its legal owner (and that, if based on a computer chip, would allow the gun to be “turned off” at a distance); and micro-stamping that, in effect, could make it illegal for gun owners to reload their own ammunition.
Obama has supported outlawing assault weapons, defined in a way that could be interpreted to include virtually every semiautomatic weapon, even double-action revolvers. He has voted to outlaw ammunition designed to penetrate a law enforcement officer’s bulletproof vest, which could arbitrarily be interpreted to include nearly every cartridge used to hunt game such as deer.
Unless “you’re seeing a lot of deer out there wearing bullet-proof vests,” Obama said jokingly during a 2004 debate, “then there is no purpose for many of the guns” citizens have been allowed to buy.
Obama has proposed banning inexpensive handguns, so-called Saturday night specials, that poor women and men could afford for self-defense, according to NRA documentation. He also has proposed a 500 percent increase in the federal excise tax on firearms and ammunition. To the extent that he favors any right to keep and bear arms, it appears to be only for the rich, not the poor.
“I need you to go out and talk to your friends and talk to your neighbors . . . to argue with them and get in their face,” Obama told a crowd of supporters in Nevada in mid-September. “And if they tell you that, ‘Well, we’re not sure where he stands on guns,’ I want you to say, ‘He believes in the Second Amendment.’ ”
By downplaying his pro-gun-control past and embracing the Second Amendment, Barack Obama has relinquished any legitimate claim to a voter mandate in favor of more gun control if he becomes president.
At most, Obama can say he never pandered by pretending to be a hunter for the news cameras. But even here, was Mr. Obama afraid that, as an urbane liberal, playing hunter might make him a laughingstock, like Gov. Michael Dukakis in a tank, or elicit other negative responses if news footage showed him looking either happy or menacing while carrying a shotgun?
Instead, Obama’s campaign has targeted blue-collar battleground states such as West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan with a radio ad declaring that “Barack Obama and John McCain will both make sure we keep our guns.”
On Sept. 5, at a factory in Duryea, Pa., a woman asked Obama about “a rumor” that, if elected president, he planned some kind of gun ban. His reaction, which only the Wall Street Journal’s Christopher Cooper has reported, has been described as Obama’s “Gun Meltdown.”
Obama tried his usual response, that he respects the “traditions of gun ownership” but favored control measures in big cities to keep guns out of criminal hands.
“If you’ve got a gun in your house, I’m not taking it,” Obama said to the skeptical audience. “This can’t be the reason not to vote for me. Can everyone hear me in the back? I see a couple of sportsmen back there. I’m not going to take away your guns.”
But during his emotional meltdown, Obama offered a moment of disarming honesty: “Even if I want to take [your guns] away,” he said, “I don’t have the votes in Congress.”
But that, too, could change in the election in November.
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