Gun politics and McCain's rhetorical fusillade


From dawn's early light to evening twilight, John McCain and his surrogates launched a series of rhetorical fusillades yesterday, celebrating the U.S. Supreme Court's smackdown of the 32-year Washington D.C. handgun ban, while seeking (with limited success) to paint Barack Obama as a waffler who is soft on gun rights.

It was fascinating merely to behold the GOP message machine in overdrive. The first emails were fired off by the Republican National Committee at 8:32 a.m., several hours in advance of the court ruling, calling attention to some unnamed Obama flak who had stated last November that Obama considered the D.C. ban to be constitutional. The Republicans followed up at 10:44, in the wake of the ruling, with details about how a younger Obama had signaled support for a legislative ban on handgun possession while filling out an Illinois questionnaire in 1996.

Nine minutes after that email, John McCain himself weighed in, praising the high court for its ruling that the D.C. handgun ban violated the Second Amendment right-to-bear-arms provision. Thirteen minutes after McCain, Republican headquarters fired off more details about that 1996 questionnaire. Twenty-seven minutes after that GOP missive, a gun-rights group followed up at 11:33 a.m. with a celebratory email of its own. Thirty-seven minutes after that, Republican headquarters was back again. And while all this was going on, the McCain camp was conducting a conference call with reporters, reiterating its Obama-is-soft-on-guns theme - followed by an email transcript of the conference call at 1:33 p.m.

While all this was going on, Obama was saying virtually nothing - for several reasons:

Broadly speaking, Democrats would prefer to avoid the gun issue entirely, because in the recent past they have been successfully demonized as the party that wants to swipe people's guns. Al Gore, it is now believed, lost several key states in 2000 (notably West Virginia, Tennessee, and Arkansas) in part because he was perceived as a foe of gun rights. And, with respect to the 2004 election, it's worth noting that, according to the exit polls, the voters with guns at home broke for George W. Bush over John Kerry by 27 percentage points.

And speaking of Obama, he had indicated in the past that favored strong restrictions on gun possession. That can be partly attributed to his Chicago pedigree. As in Washington, and as in Philadelphia, the political leaders in Chicago believe that restrictionist gun laws can help curb street violence. And urban Democrats, after all, are a key part of Obama's political base. All this helps explain why Obama's spokesman stated last November that the candidate viewed the longstanding D.C. handgun ban as defensible and constitutional.

But the Obama camp felt compelled to walk away from that spokesman's remarks; in advance of the high court ruling yesterday, it signaled that those remarks had been "inartful." Even though Obama himself did acknowledge in February, in response to a press question, that he supported the D.C. ban, it's clear today that he does not want to be seen as a gun-banning absolutist. That image could hurt him politically; after all, he needs to win gun-friendly Michigan and Pennsylvania, and hopes to capture a few of the gun-friendly western states.

So all this explains why Obama didn't break his silence on the high court ruling yesterday until 12:15 p.m. Without addressing whether he thought the D.C. blanket handgun ban had been constitutional, he simply straddled in the broadest sense: "I have always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms, but I also identify with the need for crime-ravaged communities to save their children from the violence that plagues our streets through commonsense, effective safety measures."

The McCain camp tried all day yesterday to paint Obama as a serial flip-flopper on guns, but his recent track record is more nuanced than that. His statement yesterday, for example, is actually quite consistent with what he said during a Democratic debate in Philadelphia two months ago: "As a general principle, I believe that the Constitution confers an individual right to bear arms....(But it is) important for us to reconcile what are two realities in this country. There's the reality of gun ownership and the tradition of gun ownership that has been passed on from generation to generation...But you also have the reality of what's happening here in Philadelphia and what's happening in Chicago."

And that April statement, in turn, is consistent with what he said during a February forum: "We have two conflicting traditions in this country...A lot of people, law-abiding citizens, use (guns) for hunting, for sportsmanship, and for protecting our families. We also have violence in the streets that is a result of illegal handgun use. And so there is nothing wrong, I think, with a community saying, 'we are going to take those illegal handguns off the streets." (Presumably, those are the kinds of gun-ban measures that Obama defines as "commonsense.")

All told, it's questionable whether the GOP fusillade (the party was still at it again this morning, at 9:32) will prompt gun-friendly swing voters to flee Obama. He has probably denied McCain the sharp ideological contrast that McCain dearly wants. Besides, there's absolutely no evidence that the issue of gun rights will drive this election, in a year when kitchen-table economic issues and the Iraq war trump virtually all other concerns.

In a sense, McCain's day-long salute to the high court ruling wasn't even aimed at Obama. It was an attempt to stoke the ill-enthused Republican base, to serve up some red meat and reassure those folks that McCain is one of them. Remember, McCain once broke with the NRA to support requiring background checks at gun shows, and such heresies are never forgotten. As conservative leader Grover Norquist complains today in the Financial Times newspaper, "Republicans are listless" about this election. The GOP's message overdrive yesterday (and again this morning, starting at 9:32) is really about the party staging a pep talk with itself.


Meanwhile, about the high court ruling itself...

Have you noticed that, whenever Republicans don't like a judicial decree, they complain about how "unelected judges" are "legislating from the bench" by ignoring the literal wording of the Constitution, thus imposing "judicial tyranny" on the people's elected officials, who should be free to enact policy as they see fit without any meddling from the robed brethren?

Well, take a look at the ruling that overturns the D.C. handgun ban. The majority, led by Antonin Scalia, ignored the literal meaning of the Constitution. The Second Amendment has no wording whatsoever about an individual right to bear arms, or individual home-defense; the amendment talks only about the collective security of "the people," led by "a well-regulated militia." Having thus legislated from the bench, the Scalia majority threw out a law enacted by the people's elected officials.

But since McCain and his surrogates got the policy outcome they desired, suddenly they have no qualms about unelected judges who stray from the literal meaning of the Constitution and appear to legislate from the bench.

Conservatives are also supposed to respect legal precedent, not topple it. Yet, in this ruling, the Scalia majority ignored legal precedent; dating back to 1939, the high court had never unearthed an individual's right to bear arms in the Second Amendment language. Yet now it has. Again, not a peep yesterday or today from the right-leaning advocates of "strict constructionism."

In the end, however, Barack Obama might actually benefit from this hypocrisy. The Scalia majority has provided him with political cover. From this point forward, whenever anybody charges that Obama intends to take people's guns away, he can merely reply, "Nobody can take your guns away. The Supreme Court has now ruled that it can't happen."