GUNS AND DEMOCRATS

The Obama campaign Web site’s “In the News” section, which chronicles Barack Obama’s recent statements on the 36th anni...

The Obama campaign Web site’s “In the News” section, which chronicles Barack Obama’s recent statements on the 36th anniversary of the passage of Title IX and the Juneteenth holiday celebration, does not include his reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court decision last week to strike down the District of Columbia’s ban on handguns. Though I couldn’t find it on the Web site, the campaign did issue a statement – albeit a fairly tepid one – on the Court ruling.

“I have always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms,” Obama is quoted as saying. “But I also identify with the need for crime-ravaged communities to save their children from the violence that plagues our streets through common-sense, effective safety measures.” If Charlton Heston were still living, he could have comfortably uttered the same sentences.

Partisans on both sides will argue about whether Obama’s equivocation represents a clarification or a reversal of his previous statements on the subject. But the truth is that it doesn’t matter. Far more important is that the gradual disintegration of the gun control movement that once drove Democratic politics is now pretty much complete.

For decades, the true meaning of the Second Amendment has been the subject of wrenching public debate. But last Thursday, when the Court expressly and historically extended the right of gun ownership to private citizens, the Democratic Party’s nominee for president merely shrugged.

Certainly, there were others who spoke out forcefully against the decision: some big city mayors (most notably Richard Daley of Chicago), a few dedicated congressional voices (like Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California) and the long-time voices of the professional advocate community rushed to battle stations.

But Obama, the preferred candidate of the nation’s most committed gun control proponents, did not offer a syllable of protest. If his judicial nominees will be sympathetic to more stringent gun control measures than judges appointed by George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan or John McCain, there was no evidence of that sentiment last week.

Some of the reasons for Obama’s reticence have been a result of his own unique political circumstances. His campaign is targeting western states like Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico, where questions of gun ownership resonate differently than on traditional urban Democratic turf. And his well-chronicled statement this spring about gun owners and their bitterness is indicative of the struggle he has had in attracting working-class and rural voters. As a result, both demographic and geographic political realities demand that Obama tread especially lightly on the gun issue.

But his muted response is also the culmination of a long-developing trend in the national Democratic Party: to tiptoe away from a policy discussion that they believe has caused them great political damage. The high-water mark of the gun control movement came in the early 1990s, when Bill Clinton signed both the Brady handgun bill and an assault weapons ban into law. But when Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, President Clinton pointed to these measures as a major cause for the defeat of many of his party’s incumbents.

Since then, the back-pedaling has only accelerated. Al Gore spent the fall of the 2000 campaign de-emphasizing his long-standing support for stricter gun control measures to avoid retribution in the same industrial states of Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania that will help decide this year’s election.

By 2004, John Kerry devoted a day in the closing weeks before the election to go duck hunting and establish his pro-gun bona fides. And Senator Clinton spent so much time on the primary trail this year proclaiming her love of guns that Obama referred to her caustically as “Annie Oakley.”

But Barack Obama has decided that when it comes to guns, discretion is the better part of victory. A visitor to his campaign Web site will find 24 different categories of public policy to scroll through. The 20th category, titled “Urban Policy,” contains an eight-point plan to encourage urban economic growth. The sixth of those eight points is titled “Crime and Law Enforcement,” under which the fourth of five subsections is a paragraph headlined: “Address Gun Violence In Cities.” The senator’s advisers are clearly not very interested in advertising their candidate’s thinking on this issue.

Most of the Democratic Party base is made up of fierce gun-control advocates. But after eight long years in the political wilderness, they want to win, badly. So it’s easy to understand why they’re willing to tolerate a little bit of strategic silence from their standard-bearer, even on an issue so close to their hearts.

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June 30, 2008

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