Over the past two decades, it has slowly dawned on Democrats that gun control is a losing issue for them.
Gun owners care a whole lot more about the issue than non-gun owners, and there are 80 million of them. The number of people for whom stricter gun control is a top issue is relatively tiny. Thus the pro-gun position almost always moves more votes than the anti-gun position.
This has caused a divide in the Democratic Party. Democrats fall into roughly three categories: those who are relatively pro-gun, those who are relatively anti-gun but politically savvy, and those who are anti-gun nuts.
The divide is easy to see in reactions to yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling in D.C. v. Heller. In striking down as unconstitutional the District of Columbia’s laws that banned handgun possession and required long guns to be unloaded and either disassembled or fitted with a trigger lock, the Court ruled for the first time that the Second Amendment recognizes an individual right to bear arms.
Senators Patrick Leahy and Russ Feingold, Democrats from Vermont and Wisconsin, respectively, fall into the pro-gun camp: Both issued statements lauding the ruling. Leahy called the ruling “a good thing.” Feingold announced that he was “very pleased” with the decision.
Most Democrats are in the middle camp. Realizing that “I don’t believe that people should be able to own guns,” as one Democrat once put it, is no longer a politically tenable position, they have offered praise for Heller of a somewhat different tenor.
They acknowledged that, yes, the majority was correct that the Second Amendment means something, but emphasized all the regulation of guns that the decision still allows. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, a leading advocate of gun control, spoke for many when he reminded said “the court clearly allows for reasonable regulations like the Brady law and the assault weapons ban. It is my hope and belief that the ruling will not change much in terms of how the states and the federal government are allowed to regulate guns.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took a similar tack, noting that by overturning D.C.’s gun laws on fairly narrow grounds, “the court left a lot of room to run in terms of concealed weapons and guns near schools.”
THEN THERE ARE the crazed, hardcore, militant gun-haters. While their more rational co-partisans take comfort in the potential for “reasonable regulations,” these Democrats are apoplectic at the notion that any regulation of guns might not be reasonable. “This is a very frightening decision for America,” screeched Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, worrying (quite correctly) that his city’s draconian gun ban could be in the legal crosshairs next.
“Why should we as a city not be able to protect ourselves from those who want guns in our society?” asked Daley, apparently oblivious to any distinction between law-abiding gun owners and criminals, who aren’t going to ask permission to get guns.
There are plenty of other examples of over-the-top reactions to the ruling (see here for Dianne Feinstein and Frank Lautenberg, among others), but Illinois Democrats like Daley seem to be over-represented in the foaming-at-the-mouth club.
Sen. Dick Durbin responded to the ruling by fretting about the safety of “innocent children” in the Windbag City. “This school year alone,” said Durbin, “over 20 Chicago public school students have been killed by guns. And in April there was a 10-day stretch in Chicago where there were 48 shootings.” Why the clear failure of the city’s gun regulations should be credited as an argument for preserving them is unclear.
THAT BRINGS US to the most prominent Illinois Democrat of them all. Barack Obama has spent most of his career in the hardcore anti-gun category. He was the Democrat quoted above who said “I don’t believe that people should be able to own guns,” according to scholar John Lott, who met Obama in the mid-’90s.
That’s one of many highlights in Obama’s long anti-gun record. But since he’s now running for president, Obama has retreated to safer political territory, implausibly claiming that “The Supreme Court has now endorsed” what Obama has “always believed.”
Obama emphasized, like Schumer and Pelosi, that “Justice Scalia himself acknowledged that this right is not absolute and subject to reasonable regulations enacted by local communities to keep their streets safe.” His clear preference is to move on from this subject.
He could get away with it. Congressional Quarterly blogger Taegan Goddard suggests that by making it harder to take away your guns, the Supreme Court has made it harder for Republicans to mobilize gun owners.
On the other hand, it may not be quite that easy for Obama to make the gun issue go away. A lawsuit against the City of Chicago, seeking to overturn its gun ban, has already been filed.
At some point, the canny Chicago pol Obama may have to answer some hard questions about the status of gun control in his native political environment, and what exactly he has “always believed” about it.