WASHINGTON, D.C. -- After months of claiming insufficient information to express an opinion on the District of Columbia gun law, Barack Obama noted with apparent approval Thursday that the Supreme Court ruled the 32-year ban on handguns "went too far." But what would he have said had the high court's five-to-four majority gone the other way and affirmed the law? Obama's strategists can only thank swing Justice Anthony Kennedy for enabling Justice Antonin Scalia's majority opinion to take the Democratic presidential candidate off the hook.
Such relief is typified by a vigorous supporter of Obama who advised Al Gore in his 2000 presidential campaign. Believing Gore's gun-control advocacy lost him West Virginia and the presidency, this prominent Democrat told me: "I don't want that to happen with Obama -- to be defeated on an issue that is not important to us and is not a political winner for us." He would not be quoted by name because he did not want abuse heaped on him by gun-control activists.
This political reality explains the minuet on the D.C. gun issue danced all year by Obama. Liberal Democrats who publicly deride the National Rifle Association privately fear the NRA as the most potent of conservative interest group. Many white men with NRA decals on their vehicles are labor union members whose votes Obama needs in West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. That is why Obama did not share the outrage of his supporter Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty over the Supreme Court's decision.
What may be Obama's authentic position on gun rights was revealed in early April when he told a closed-door Silicon Valley fundraiser that "bitter" small-town residents "cling" to the Bible and Second Amendment. That ran against his public assertion as a former constitutional law professor that the Constitution guarantees rights for individual gun owners, not just group rights for state militias. But his legal opinion forced Obama into a political corner.
The case before the Supreme Court pleading for the D.C. gun ban was based entirely on the argument that the Constitution's rights applied only to state militias. During oral arguments March 18, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked whether the Second Amendment has "any effect today as a restraint on legislation," since such militias no longer exist. Walter Dellinger, a former solicitor general representing the District of Columbia, replied that "it doesn't," adding, "You don't make up a new use for an amendment whose prohibitions aren't being violated."