We're All Gun Nuts Now
by John McCormack
During a campaign debate on April 16, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were asked if the District of Columbia's ban on gun possession, now facing a challenge before the Supreme Court, is constitutional. "I think a total ban, with no exceptions under any circumstances, might be found by the Court not to be. But I don't know the facts," said Clinton (Yale Law '73), dodging the question for the third and final time. Obama (Harvard Law '91) also pleaded ignorance, confessing he hadn't "listened to the briefs and looked at all the evidence."
When moderator Charlie Gibson pointed out that Obama's handwriting was on a 1996 candidate survey that said he favored banning handguns, Obama flatly denied his writing was on the questionnaire, contradicting what a campaign staffer had told Politico weeks earlier. Asked if he still supports licensing and registering guns, Obama said he favors "common-sense approaches" to gun control like keeping guns from "the mentally deranged." When Clinton was asked if she maintains her past support for licensing and registration, she too sidestepped the question, saying, "What might work in New York City is certainly not going to work in Montana."
With both contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination evading the gun control issue as if it were sniper fire, you couldn't blame gun control advocates for feeling bitter. Yet Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence--the pro-gun control counterweight to the National Rifle Association--says Obama and Clinton are "coming fairly close to delivering the message we'd like." On licensing and registering guns, Helmke says, they are "being realistic" in recognizing "there's no support for pushing that forward at this stage." His thoughts on the candidates' ducking questions on the D.C. gun ban? "They're politicians, and most politicians on tough calls do not answer."
The reason Helmke doesn't feel abandoned on licensing, registration, and the D.C. gun ban is that the Brady Campaign has shelved those goals, in favor of a more modest, incrementalist strategy. Though licensing and registration remain official Brady Campaign policy, Helmke says he hasn't even talked about them with anyone on staff since he became president in 2006.
In 2007, Helmke called the appeals court decision striking down the District's gun ban "judicial activism at its worst," but now he gives the impression he wouldn't mind losing the case in the Supreme Court. A loss "could be good politically for the gun control movement and these candidates," he says. "If folks know the Supreme Court's not going to allow anybody to confiscate their guns, then background checks really shouldn't be something you oppose."
Indeed, a loss could create an opening to advance what Helmke calls "middle of the road" issues. He expects both Obama and Clinton to pursue the Brady Campaign's top three legislative priorities: closing the gun show loophole, expanding access to gun trace data, and banning "assault weapons."
Like Obama and Clinton, McCain favors closing the "gun show loophole," which allows private individuals, unlike licensed gun dealers, to sell their guns without performing background checks. This has a decent chance of becoming law in the next couple of years.
It's doubtful the Brady Campaign's other two goals--which McCain opposes--could make it through Congress. The debate over gun trace data centers on who should have access to reports showing where guns used in crimes were bought and sold. Only law enforcement agents currently have access to this information, but the Brady Campaign wants to make it public. Helmke says this would help local politicians crack down on unscrupulous gun dealers. It would also help pro-gun control mayors like Michael Bloomberg sue gun dealers and manufacturers. An attempt in 2007 to repeal the federal restrictions on gun trace data failed in a House Appropriations Committee vote 26 to 40.
As for "assault weapons," a 10-year federal ban was enacted in 1994, when support for gun control was stronger on Capitol Hill. Even so, the ban squeaked through the House, by 216 to 214. It limited ammunition clips to 10 rounds and banned 19 semi-automatic weapons by name, as well as any semi-automatic weapon with a combination of features, such as a rifle scope and pistol grip. (Fully automatic weapons have been restricted since 1934 and off the public market since 1986 unless manufactured before that date.) Before the assault weapons ban expired in 2004, an amendment to extend it for 10 years passed the Senate 52 to 47, but the underlying bill was defeated, and in the House it was never even brought to a vote.
Whether the Democrats bring the assault weapons ban up for a vote depends on their willingness to risk their majority, which they secured partly by running candidates like senators Jim Webb of Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana who have "A" ratings from the National Rifle Association. Yet Helmke isn't upset with the Democrats. "A political party's job is to get their people elected to office," he says.
Democrats have run away from gun control because they think it's a major reason they lost swing states in the last two presidential elections. As Democratic congressman Barney Frank said in 2001, "Unlike gay rights, environment, and choice . . . Democrats were disappointed when a pro-gun control bloc did not appear." "If it weren't for guns, President-elect Kerry might now be conferring with incoming Senate Majority Leader Daschle," wrote New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in November 2004. "[G]un control is dead."
Polls show how gun control became a losing issue for Democrats. In 1990, Gallup reported that 78 percent of Americans supported "more strict" gun laws, but only 49 percent did so in a Gallup/USA Today poll this February. More revealing is a Gallup survey from October 2007 that asked if government should "enforce the current gun laws more strictly and NOT pass new gun laws, or pass new gun laws in addition to enforcing the current laws more strictly." Enforcement without passing new laws was favored 58 percent to 38 percent.
Between 2000 and 2006, Democrats ditched a number of pro-gun control candidates, and NRA endorsements of Democratic candidates for Congress jumped from 38 to 68, according to an NRA spokesman. In the summer of 2006, Helmke, a former mayor of Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and Republican Senate candidate, says he was hired in part to usher in a "somewhat more moderate and common sense" approach to gun control.
While he doesn't think gun control sank Al Gore and John Kerry, Helmke sees that the gun control movement has been beaten back politically and legislatively. In the past 10 years, only one federal gun control law has been enacted, and it passed with the support of the NRA: a measure that provides money to induce state governments to report background check data to the federal government.
Helmke describes the Brady Campaign's present situation with a football analogy. "The other side had marched the ball down on the 2 yard line . . . but now we got the ball back. The bad news is we've got 98 yards to go," he says. "You don't throw the Hail Mary pass. . . . You've got three downs to get a first down." Sounds like a game plan. But first the Brady Campaign will need Obama or Clinton to pull off a few trick plays to keep that record on guns well out of sight and win the election in November.