Packing heat, mocking principle



Republicans typically insist these days that, in order to rebuild their party, they need to reconnect with their core principles. One of those principles is limited government, the notion that states and localities know what's best for their own citizens. It's like conservative icon Barry Goldwater used to say: "I fear Washington and centralized government more than I do Moscow." It's like Ronald Reagan used to say: "The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference, or less centralized authority."

And yet, in the Senate, on this very day, the Republicans are touting a gun-loving amendment that makes a mockery of their purported party principle.

If the Republicans get their way, people who pack heat in states with lenient license-to-carry laws would be able to bring their concealed weapons into virtually all the states and cities that have strict laws aimed at discouraging such behavior. In other words, a less than solid citizen with a record of alcohol abuse and misdemeanor convictions, who nevertheless can legally obtain a carry permit in a lenient state, would thus be able to bring his concealed weapon to a stricter state such as Pennsylvania. Or to New Jersey, a state that grants very few carry permits, generally limiting such licenses to security professionals. 

In other words, the Republicans are seeking a nationally-mandated gun-friendly law, a "centralized authority" that would trump the right of states and cities to decide what's best for their own citizens. So much for the conservative principles of Goldwater and Reagan; the stench of the GOP's hypocrisy is enough to make you retch.

But that's the gist of the Thune amendment, named for its chief sponsor, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, who apparently believes that the gun culture traditions of South Dakota should virtually become the law of the land. At the moment, more than 30 states bar alcohol abusers from getting concealed-carry permits, more than 30 won't give permits to those convicted of various misdemeanors, and more than 30 require that permit applicants first complete a gun-safety program. Under the Thune amendment, however, the pistol packers from the most lenient states would be able to cart their weaponry almost anywhere they want. In short, there would be one lax national standard, pegged to the lowest common denominator.

Thune's measure is currently attached to a Senate defense authorization bill, and the vote may come as early as today. But I'm less interested in the prospects for passage than what the measure says about Republican hypocrisy (and what it says about Thune, a rising star and potential future national candidate who is working to endear himself to the gun wing of the party base). Isn't the GOP supposed to be the party that condemns federal overreach and defends states' rights?

Actually, the party is quite flexible about its limited-government philosophy. I seem to recall that it championed federal overreach quite vigorously just four years ago, when the Republican Congress decided to control the fate of Terry Schiavo, taking the case away from a local Florida judge (a southern Baptist and Republican) who had already ruled that Schiavo should be allowed to die in accordance with state law and previous state rulings, not to mention the wishes of Terry's husband. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay insisted that Washington knew what was best for Terry, regardless of state law; as DeLay famously put it, "I don't care what her husband says."

On the issue of gay marriage, meanwhile, the Republicans actually swing both ways. Sometimes they violate their purported limited-government principles by talking up the notion of a U.S. constitutional amendment barring gays from marrying anywhere, regardless of what the states might wish to permit. But mostly Republicans invoke states' rights, by arguing that gay marriage licenses should not be allowed to cross state lines, that each state should be free to regulate marriage as it sees fit, that a state with a conservative culture should not be forced to recognize a gay marriage license granted in a state with a more liberal culture.

So apparently here's the GOP deal: If two gay people married in Massachusetts decide to relocate to a state that bans gay marriage, they're out of luck - because, under the principle of states' rights, their license would be deemed invalid. But if a nutcase in Alaska with a record of sex misdemeanors against minors decides to bring his gun to a state with stricter carrying rules, he would be just fine - because, under Thune's lax national standard, Alaska's law (which actually allows sex miscreants to carry concealed weapons) would be deemed valid almost everywhere else. With no consideration for the principle of state's rights.

Thune, his fellow Republican sponsors, and the gun lobby undoubtedly would argue that the Second Amendment right to bear arms is so important that it transcends all state boundaries. But federal courts have long recognized that individual states have a right to establish their own gun rules; three Republican-appointed federal appeals court judges argued this very point in a ruling six weeks ago. They cited, as precedent, a U.S. Supreme Court decision which concluded that the Second Amendment doesn't bar states and localities from regulating guns. That high court decision has been in effect since it was handed 1886. Don't the Republicans claim to be the party that respects legal precedent?

Four hundred mayors have cried foul, and at least one Republican Capitol Hill veteran sees the Thune measure for what it is; the problem is that this particular Republican is no longer in office. Former Virginia congressman Tom Davis, a one-time top party figure, said today, "The Thune Amendment flies in the face of federalist principles by usurping state laws. (It) is not pro-gun. It is pro-criminal." He called on lawmakers in both parties to defeat it, but, ah, there's the rub:

A number of Democratic senators from red states and swing states are doing their bit to boost the Thune measure, either because as Democrats they have no problems with federal overreach, or because (just as likely) they're terrified that the gun owners back home will string them up if they fail to fall into line. Harry Reid plans to vote Yes, as do at least three or four of his Democratic colleagues. As always, the gun issue is potent enough to divide the ostensibly filibuster-proof Democratic majority.

The Republicans may be philosophically fraudulent, but I'll give them points for political gamesmanship. Who cares about principles when there's a big chance to score fresh points in the culture war?

Update: Thune and his fellow Republicans nearly crafted a big victory for the gun lobby today. Aided by a slew of red-state Democratic senators (plus Bob Casey of Pennsylvania), they came within just two votes of trampling the states that prefer to keep their strict permit-to-carry laws. In the end, the Thune amendment failed today only because two Republicans - Dick Lugar of Indiana, and George Voinovich of Ohio - voted No. They could afford to tick off the gun lobby and stay faithful to the GOP's limited-government principle; after all, Lugar isn't up for re-election until 2012 (assuming he runs again), and Voinovich is retiring when his current term expires.


This morning, a likely conversation somewhere in America:

"Ya know, honey, I'm fed up with this Obama. He's been in for six months already, and he still hasn't fixed all our problems. I want him to tell me what he plans to do. He owes me an explanation!"

"Soon enough, dear. He's having a press conference on TV tonight, at 8 o'clock."

"Eight o'clock!? No way I'm watching him! That when So You Think You Can Dance is on!"