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.
Republican voters are a little more demanding than Democrats on this issue. They worry not only about stated positions but also about trustworthiness. Fred Thompson, Mike Huckabee and John McCain have basically strong, consistent records. Though McCain supports some control measures, he's done so pretty regularly. Rudy Giuliani and Mitt "I shot me some varmints" Romney, on the other hand, are coming off stints as Northeastern RINOs. They're praying to a benevolent Judeo-Christian Deity that voters won't hold their records against them.
Giuliani ran a city with a handgun permit system that bordered on a ban, and even today professes a sort-of federalist, ruralist interpretation of the Second Amendment. He's said, "maybe you have one solution [in a big city] and in another place, more rural, more suburban, other issues, you have a different set of rules," which would put him in roughly the same category as John Edwards and Michelle Obama. He has claimed to think D.C.'s outright ban is unconstitutional, but he's never bothered to explain why it's unconstitutional while the law he enforced is A-OK. Also, as mayor he sued the gun industry for legally distributing its products to government-licensed dealers.
As an olive branch to conservatives, Giuliani has promised to appoint "strict-constructionist" judges and stressed his respect for federalism. Conservatives have been skeptical on both fronts, reacting cooly to his NRA address and wincing at the notion that a fundamental constitutional right should depend on regional politics or population density.
As Massachusetts governor, Romney defended the state's "tough gun laws." He waited for his presidential campaign to join the NRA and discover that the Second Amendment protects an individual right. He claims the only gun law he would sign is an assault-weapon ban, and like Giuliani he professes strict-constructionism.
If Giuliani or Romney manages to escape hostile fire in the primaries, the nominee's positions might prove attractive to some moderates. But he would have a much harder time than any of the basically pro-gun candidates in bringing home the normal pro-gun vote, if the Supreme Court strikes D.C.'s gun ban down, or harnessing the anger of tens of millions of Americans, if the Supremes narrowly decide to ignore the clear meaning of the Second Amendment.
THE GREAT WILD CARD in all this is the National Rifle Association. The Washington Times recently reported that the organization was considering breaking with tradition by making a primary-election endorsement. Head lobbyist Chris Cox cited the "front-loading" of the process -- if neither party picks a true Second Amendment defender, there'll be no one worthy of a general-election NRA endorsement. The organization doesn't want to sit out the way it did in 1992 and 1996.
Even the NRA's fiercest critics have to concede that its efforts -- from grassroots activism to Capitol Hill lobbying -- bring results. A recent Independence Institute study found that, in any election for a seat in the House of Representatives, an endorsement can increase a candidate's share of the vote by 3 to 5 percent per 10,000 NRA members in that district.
If Giuliani and Romney's gun records set them back a bit now, an NRA intervention could tip the balance in many close primary elections, especially if an announcement were made between Iowa and New Hampshire...