Last week, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal signed a bill allowing gun owners in his state to carry firearms into houses of worship. Just days earlier, the Supreme Court extended federal gun rights provisions to city and state governments. And last summer, Arizona legislators voted to allow handguns in bars and President Obama signed a bill permitting firearms in national parks.
[Congress1] Despite fears on the right that Obama would trample the Second Amendment and take people’s guns, his presidency has so far been marked by a string of pro-gun victories and a reinvigorated gun advocacy movement — the result of a Democratic leadership that has proven unwilling to take on powerful firearm interests.
“It’s been very clear that there’s a solid pro-gun, pro-NRA majority on the floor of Congress, and you can’t do anything against it,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), a gun control advocate who has received an “F” grade from the National Rifle Association, told TWI. “And that’s the entire Republican Party and a fraction of the Democratic Party, which is a majority.”
The proliferation of pro-gun measures under President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress reflects the party’s learned reticence on the issue. Democrats remain haunted by memories of 1994, when gun control advocacy by President Bill Clinton led the pro-gun lobby to wage fierce campaigns that ousted several lawmakers aligned with the cause.
“Democrats learned a substantial lesson in 1994, and no anti-gun measures are ever going to come forth in this Congress,” said Don Kates, a lawyer and criminal law expert at the Pacific Research Institute.
The NRA, the leading gun rights group and one of Washington’s most formidable lobbies, has forcefully staked out its territory in Congress. Last month, Democrats, fearing an NRA backlash on a campaign finance measure, carved out what was widely considered a special exemption for the group. Subsequently, the NRA dropped its opposition, and the measure passed the House.
“Some people are so terrified of the NRA vote score that they’ll vote for anything the NRA says to vote for and against anything they say to vote against,” Nadler said. “It’s unfortunate in the extreme.”
Some gun control advocates expected more from this president. As a state senator in Illinois, Obama threw his weight behind various regulatory measures. He backed a ban on semiautomatic assault weapons and voted to limit handgun purchases to one a month per person.
But Obama notably distanced himself from the cause during the 2008 election, proclaiming his commitment to the gun rights. “I believe in the Second Amendment,” he said. “I believe in people’s lawful right to bear arms. I will not take your shotgun away. I will not take your rifle away. I won’t take your handgun away.”
One year into his presidency, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence gave Obama an “F” across the board on gun control issues. The Chicago Tribune joked the following month that “[o]n the list of issues for which Obama is willing to put himself on the line, gun control ranks somewhere below free trade with Uzbekistan.”
As a result, gun rights advocates remain about as unimpeded in their cause today as during the Bush administration.
“The political climate hasn’t changed a lot,” said Ladd Everitt, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “If you look back at when Republicans had control of government before 2006, you pretty much saw the same picture.”
“We were hoping for Obama to take a more forceful position in terms of gun violence prevention,” Everitt added, positing that Democrats have backed away due to pressure from the NRA, conservatives in the party, the disproportionate number of single-issue gun voters and the force of industry behind the gun rights cause.
“Gun rights organizations like the NRA saw President Obama’s history as being one of anti-gun owners’ rights,” said Bob Cottrol, a constitutional lawyer and gun law expert at George Washington University, “though that hasn’t been the case so far in his presidency.” But that perception, he said, led to an early and ongoing backlash among passionate gun owners that has furthered the pro-gun cause under Obama.
Kates put it more succinctly: “Historically, Democrats being in power has been a godsend for the finances of pro-gun groups.”
But according to David Kopel, a Second Amendment expert at New York University and gun rights advocate, Obama is subtly doing more to stem the gun movement than Bush. Kopel points out that Bush’s Supreme Court appointees, Samuel Alito and John Roberts, have been more pro-gun than Obama’s appointee Sonia Sotomayor, who voted on the losing side of the recent 5-4 McDonnell v. Chicago case, which limited the types of gun control regulations cities and states can adopt.
“Sotomayor said she considered [the 2008] Heller [ruling] to be settled law, that she knew how important the individual right to arms was, and then less than a year later she turned around and joined an opinion that said Heller should be overturned,” Kopel said.
But the replacements of two left-leaning justices with two other left-leaning justices — Sotomayor and, if confirmed, Elena Kagan — represents more of a status-quo perpetuation than a victory for gun control advocates.
Obama’s reluctance to take up gun control as president, after aligning himself with it for most of his career, signals an increasingly toxic national political climate for the cause and reflects the Democratic Party’s shift.
“I’d say President Obama has been politically astute in not following the Bill Clinton policy of trying to make gun control a top-three national issue,” Kopel said.
Added Kates of the Pacific Research Institute: “Generally speaking, gun control advocates have other ambitions, other objectives, and for now they’re willing to drop their anti-gun concerns in exchange for not being defeated in other matters.”