The President Is Not a Gun Slinger

Why the 2nd Amendment is safe under President Obama-for now


Politically savvy gun owners have long distrusted President Barack Obama, and for perfectly fair reasons—even (or perhaps especially) after he went out of his way to tell them that lawful gun owners have nothing to fear from his administration.

Perhaps, Obama seemed to be gently suggesting, they could cool it with the spike in gun purchases since he won the election. December showed a 24 percent rise in FBI instant background checks for gun purchases from the previous December, and there was a 49 percent such hike the week of his election.

Obama's famous gaffe about "bitter" people who "cling" to guns merely brought this existing tension to wide public attention. Despite his insistence that he respects the doctrine settled by the Supreme Court in June's Heller decision—that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms—Obama has a far narrower vision of what that means than, say, your average National Rifle Association (NRA) member.

During his political career, Obama has supported Chicago's handgun ban (as well as D.C.'s ban, overturned in Heller, a decision he later claimed to agree with) and voted for, or expressed public support for, such gun restrictions as banning concealed public carrying of weapons and barring gun sales within five miles of schools or parks.

Furthermore, a statement on Obama's gun intentions that had disappeared from his campaign site has now reappeared on the White House website. These details in particular raised hackles in the gun rights community:

Obama and Biden would repeal the Tiahrt Amendment, which restricts the ability of local law enforcement to access important gun trace information, and give police officers across the nation the tools they need to solve gun crimes and fight the illegal arms trade…. They support closing the gun show loophole and making guns in this country childproof. They also support making the expired federal Assault Weapons Ban permanent.

And his attorney general designate Eric Holder is a straight-up foe of gun rights. He was a principal in the Clinton administration's perceived attacks on gun owners' rights; he's for registration and licensing, mandatory waiting periods, and gun purchase limits. Holder also signed on to an amicus brief on D.C.'s side in Heller, and clearly does not agree with the case's Second Amendment-affirming decision. He's been a magnet of discontent for the gun rights community, though in a contentious move, the NRA has chosen not to openly testify against him or count votes for him against congressmen or senators in their NRA scorecards.

Moreover, as certain alarmed folks in the gun rights community will note, there's plenty that Holder will be able to do as the head of the Department of Justice, including the harassment of gun dealers by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. There are also fears that Obama may issue executive orders restricting the importation of certain kinds of weapons or ammunition.

I don't doubt that Obama and Holder have little respect for gun rights. Obama's pandering during the campaign was almost certainly insincere. But what is politically important is not whether he meant it; it's that he thought he had to do it in the first place. He even had to run ads in such potential swing states as Ohio and Pennsylvania aimed at countering NRA ads that tagged him as an enemy of gun owners.

That indicates what Obama—and his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel—has at the front of his mind: the Democratic Party's institutional memory of its own personal gun-related tragedies of 1994 and 2000 (and maybe even 2004). Gun control fever was running high in the early 1990s, with the Brady Bill and the original "assault weapon" ban passing in '93 and '94.

Then came the Republican takeover of both houses of Congress in 1994, blamed by no less savvy a politico than then-President Bill Clinton on the Democrats' rousing of the gun rights movement. Al Gore's 2000 losses in such states as Tennessee and West Virginia, and thus the White House, are also widely attributed to the wrath of the NRA and its allies.

Irwin Nowick, a hyper-detailed watcher and chronicler of gun issues on the California and national level, had a cogent argument for why even some of the things Obama explicitly says he wants on the gun control front are apt to go nowhere:

Federally, Obama and….Emanuel [do] not want to cause problems for Labor or "swing voters" which include persons who own guns. Emanuel remembers Clinton and he understands how tenuous Democratic control of the House in fact is…. In addition, what people do not understand is that the type of Democrats who controlled the House during the first two years of the Clinton regime is not there any more. They were wiped out in 1994 and by the movement of House seats from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and West. Those seats that did exist in the Rust Belt were sliced and diced in redistricting in 2001. Indeed, in this cycle—as in 2006—you had the growth of NRA Democrats.

…People can forget about a new "assault weapon" ban—that one is not getting any traction—Labor is opposed and Rahm Emanuel is not putting his boss or a Democratic majority at risk…. The 1994 crime bill which included "the ban" passed because Republicans voted for it. Many of those Republicans are gone and because of the movement of seats because of the 2000 census and resulting redistricting, many of the Democratic seats where the members voted for it are gone as well.

So far, there is no sign of incipient serious gun action on the Hill, or out of the White House. Two new bills that have generated much gun community chatter are sitting mostly sponsorless for now in the Judiciary Committee. Second Amendment enthusiasts are excited about Florida Republican Rep. Cliff Stearns's National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act of 2009 (H.R. 197) (co-sponsored by Virginia Democrat Rick Boucher), which would create cross-state reciprocity for states that issue concealed carry permits, allowing a gun owner who has one in his home state to essentially use it in other states. (Stearns has authored essentially similar bills in the past, which got nowhere.)

And they are alarmed by Illinois Democrat Rep. Bobby Rush's bill, a "Firearms Licensing and Record of Sale Act," which would pretty much do what the title implies. It too is currently sitting in committee, with zero co-sponsors. Radical pro- or anti-gun action is just not much on Congress' mind right now.

Alan Gottlieb of the Second Amendment Foundation is still quite wary of Obama and nervous about what the next four years will mean for gun rights, though he granted in an interview this week that "we don't see any legislation on the immediate horizon whatsoever; the few bills introduced, I don't believe will go anywhere. [Rush's bill] is asking too much; it's never gonna happen."

Still, Gottlieb is concerned about how a Holder-run DOJ might behave in any future lawsuit intended to extend gun rights in which the federal government is a party. He's also worried about how Holder's BATFE could use existing laws to stymie gun and ammunition dealers. And he fears that any effective new gun control will come without warning from Congress. "Something bad could appear and head to hearings quickly and not be telegraphed months in advance," seriously harming the gun rights community's ability to man up and stop it.

But as far as actual action to restrict gun rights on the federal level, not much is imminent or moving. Congress and the new president are very, very busy spending the U.S. further into hyperinflation or bankruptcy and figuring out exit strategies (or not) from Bush-era foreign policy entanglements. While Justice Department's focus on enforcing existing gun laws may well increase, we're unlikely to see any significant new federal efforts that infringe on the Heller-certified constitutional right to own common weapons for self-defense in the home.

The gun rights community, in other words, is most likely wrong about the extent to which the Obama administration will try to restrict gun rights. (Not that, even in a post-Heller age, they don't have reason to be worried; short of D.C.-style total gun bans, lower courts so far seem sure that any other gun regulations go under the ruling.) The political irony is that being mistaken about the magnitude of the threat can guarantee they achieve their goals—being wrong, especially convincing the gun rights rank and file to grossly overestimate the Obama threat, will help ensure that the threat never becomes real—even if it never would have.

In the face of an administration that undoubtedly only respects gun rights to the extent that its supporters have the political power to harm it, gun rights forces do need to keep their powder dry; perhaps even excessively stocked. Paranoids may not always have real and effective enemies, but in politics, as in life, paranoia can keep you safe.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of Radicals for Capitalism (PublicAffairs) and Gun Control on Trial (Cato Institute).