Among the many groups that opposed Barack Obama's presidential race, few were more certain or vehement than gun rights organizations. "Barack Obama would be the most anti-gun president in American history," the National Rifle Association announced. "Obama is a committed anti-gunner," warned Gun Owners of America.
So it's no stunner that after a year in office, the president is getting hammered by people who have no use for his policy on firearms. The surprise is that the people attacking him are those who favor gun control, not those who oppose it.
Obama's record on this issue has been largely overlooked—except by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which recently issued a report card flunking him on all seven issues it deems important. Said President Paul Helmke, "If I had been told, in the days before Barack Obama's inauguration, that his record on gun violence prevention would be this poor, I would not have believed it."
Had he listened to the candidate in 2008, he would have believed. At a September campaign rally in rural Virginia, Obama declared unequivocally, "I believe in the Second Amendment. 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. … There are some common-sense gun safety laws that I believe in. But I am not going to take your guns away."
The Brady Center must have hoped he was being less than honest. And he was: He had no intention of pushing those "common-sense" laws he had previously favored. On the list of issues for which Obama is willing to put himself on the line, gun control ranks somewhere below free trade with Uzbekistan.
So he has proposed nothing in the way of new federal restrictions on firearms. Even the "assault weapons" ban signed by President Clinton—and allowed to expire in 2004—has no visible place on his agenda.
Not only that, he's approved changes that should gladden the hearts of gun-rights supporters, a group that includes me. He signed a law permitting guns to be taken into national parks. He signed another allowing guns as checked baggage on Amtrak. He acted to preserve an existing law limiting the use of government information on firearms it has traced.
Still, the NRA is not rushing to recant. A spokesman admits the president has signed some provisions it favors, but notes that they were attached to legislation he wanted, making them hard to veto. Says Andrew Arulanandam, "He has disappointed us with his appointments," particularly Atty. Gen. Eric Holder and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, neither a darling of the shooting set.
But those are petty matters given Obama's overall refusal to do anything to advance gun control. On this issue, he took such a strong, clear position during the campaign that he has no room to maneuver. That was not accidental. It was deliberate—the equivalent of burning his ships to eliminate the option of retreat.
In terms of actual policy, rather than his previous record, Obama is a long way from being anti-gun. This is not because he has fond memories of sitting in a deer stand as a lad in Hawaii or of talking shotguns with Dick Cheney. It's because his mother didn't raise a fool.
Like some other Democrats, he may recall that in 1994, after banning "assault weapons," they lost the House for the first time in 40 years. Obama knows that anyone who staunchly favors banning guns won't vote Republican no matter what. But some independents who are protective of their weapons may vote Democratic if that issue is off the table.
Off the table is exactly where he intends to keep it. Last year, 65 House Democrats wrote Holder vowing to "actively oppose" any effort to restore the assault weapons ban. The president has enough trouble getting legislation that enjoys overwhelming support in his party. He is not about to pick a fight with centrist Democrats over gun control.
Opponents of gun control should not rely on Obama's innermost sentiments on the subject. He obviously doesn't cherish the right to keep and bear arms. But for those who favor Second Amendment rights, here's the nice thing about having such a canny politician in the White House: He doesn't have to.
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