Revenge of the Bitter Gun Owners

Jacob Sullum

9/24/2008 12:01:00 AM - Jacob Sullum

Last spring, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to arms, Democrats hoped the decision would neutralize the gun issue. Instead the ruling, by inviting debate over which kinds of gun control are constitutional, has made the issue more salient.

That's bad news for Barack Obama, who the National Rifle Association (NRA) says "would be the most anti-gun president in American history." The Democratic nominee pays lip service to Second Amendment rights while calling for "common sense," "reasonable" restrictions. But Obama's sense of what's reasonable, while common among the left-liberal politicians and activists inside his comfort zone, may seem decidedly unreasonable to the pro-gun voters the NRA is trying to mobilize against him.

Since these voters made a decisive difference in the 2000 presidential election, and arguably in 2004 as well, this is a threat Obama ignores at his peril. The NRA plans to spend $15 million urging voters in battleground states of the Midwest and Mountain West to "Defend Freedom" and "Defeat Obama." Meanwhile, the Obama campaign is running radio spots in swing states such as Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia that promise "Barack Obama and John McCain will both make sure we keep our guns."

Although Factcheck.org faults the NRA for distorting Obama's record, every falsifiable claim in its TV spots has a factual basis. In one ad, a Virginia hunter complains that Obama supports "a huge new tax on my guns and ammo," referring to a position Obama took in 1999. He adds that the Illinois senator voted to "ban virtually all deer-hunting ammunition," a reference to his 2005 vote for a federal ban on rifle ammunition "designed or marketed as having armor piercing capability," phrasing that arguably covered deer-hunting ammunition.

Finally, the hunter complains that Obama wants to ban shotguns and rifles used for hunting, alluding to his support for reinstating the federal "assault weapon" ban. That law arbitrarily prohibited firearms based mainly on cosmetic features that made them look scary to gun-naive politicians.

In another NRA ad, an Iraq war veteran from Wisconsin complains, "Barack Obama opposes my right to own a handgun for self-defense." In a 1996 questionnaire, Obama's state Senate campaign said he supported a handgun ban. Today, Obama says that was a mistake, but the questionnaire bears his handwriting, so he clearly saw it without changing the supposedly erroneous answer.

As a state legislator, Obama voted against a bill shielding people who use handguns for self-defense in their homes from prosecution for violating local gun registration rules. Most tellingly, Obama has repeatedly expressed support for local handgun bans such as the District of Columbia's, which the Supreme Court overturned, and Chicago's, which faces a constitutional challenge.

"What works in Chicago may not work in Cheyenne," Obama says. The line, meant to reassure gun owners, highlights his peculiar view that the extent of an American's constitutional rights depends on where he lives.

The specifics of Obama's views may turn out to be less important than the sense that he's an urban sophisticate who is unfamiliar with firearms and does not even understand the gun control laws he supports. In a 2004 debate, Obama explained the rationale for the "assault weapon" ban this way: "Unless you're seeing a lot of deer out there wearing bullet-proof vests, then there is no purpose for many of the guns." He thereby conflated the "assault weapon" and "armor-piercing bullet" issues, apparently not realizing that ordinary hunting ammunition can penetrate "bullet-proof vests."

The NRA ads seek to reinforce the impression of Obama's cluelessness. "Where is this guy from?" asks the hunter. "He's probably never been hunting a day in his life." Two of the ads allude to Obama's notorious comment that working-class voters in Pennsylvania and the Midwest "get bitter" during hard economic times and "cling to guns or religion." What will Obama cling to when voters question his commitment to the Second Amendment?