When Americans nominate their presidential candidates next year, the Second Amendment won’t be the first thing on their minds. The issue didn’t even appear in a recent CNN poll that found that the economy, Iraq, health care, immigration, and terrorism are the nation’s biggest concerns.
But in a country where 36 percent of Democrats and 48 percent of Republicans have firearms in their homes, the issue is still a locked and loaded one for candidates of both parties.
Republican presidential hopefuls, as expected, worked hard to win over the members of the National Rifle Association at the organization’s convention in September. But even otherwise gun-shy Democrats are expressing Strange New Respect for gun owners.
Recently, Senator Barack Obama told a Harlan, Iowa, crowd that his wife Michelle had been traveling “up…in eastern Iowa…and she said ‘Boy, it’s really pretty up here,’ but she said, ‘But you know, I can see why if I was living out here, I’d want a gun. Because, you know, 9-1-1 is going to take some time before somebody responds.’”
So now we know that Obama’s wife has some vaguely pro-Second Amendment views. Her husband, and many other presidential aspirants, are proving harder to get a bead on. Before they cast ballots for president, there are two Big Questions that informed gun owners want answered. They are:
1. Will candidate X veto anti-gun legislation? And by “anti-gun legislation” we mean assault weapon bans; gun registration; and attempts to repeal the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (Lawful Commerce Act hereafter), which prohibits lawsuits against firearms manufacturers when criminals use their products.
2. Will he appoint judges who will strike down gun-control laws? This is especially important because the Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of D.C.’s handgun ban next summer. A little judicial-branch muscle in the aftermath of a pro-gun ruling could set the tone for the next several decades, at least.
TO TAKE THE DEMOCRATS first, it’s worth mentioning that not one official website of the three frontrunners prominently features the candidate’s stance on the right to keep and bear arms.
However, the issue isn’t totally ignored. John Edwards actually makes some pro-gun statements under his plan for “Restoring Hope to Rural America.” He supports gun rights in a limited fashion, but usually links them to hunting rather than self-defense. Edwards also opposed the Lawful Commerce Act — what, you thought a former trial lawyer would vote to limit legal liabilities? — and supports assault weapon bans.
The other leading Democrats candidates have clearer positions that they’re currently trying very hard to ignore. Clinton has a long-established anti-gun record. While in the Illinois legislature, Obama voted against giving leniency to people caught defending their homes with banned handguns.
Edwards’s stance could peel off rural voters while ceding some big-city liberal votes to Clinton and Obama in the primaries. This is part of his overall strategy, including his faux working-class image and an emphasis on rural poverty.
It could work. Rural-dwellers made up a quarter of 2004 presidential election voters, and they’re under-served by the other two candidates. Many big-city heavy states (California, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois) won’t hold their primaries until February 5, giving Edwards time to build momentum in smaller states.
Edwards’s moderate pro-gun position could help even more come general election time. Republicans only narrowly won rural areas in the 2006 midterms and aren’t making much progress. In a general election, increased rural support won’t mean decreased urban support, because city liberals will still vote Democrat.
THERE ISN’T A LARGE constituency in the Republican Party for gun control. Half of Republicans have firearms in their homes and few want to go grab guns from others. As such, Republican contenders play down any gun-grabbing tendencies they might have at least until the general election, and preferably until after they’ve left the White House and started writing their memoirs.
Those Republicans who aren’t gung-ho about the Second Amendment walk a tightrope. They don’t want to lose gun owners’ support by not coming far enough in their direction, but the candidates are also wary of moving too far away from their former position, too fast. The shift can attract the “flip-flopper” label, which endangers their standing with both pro- and anti-gun voters.
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