I, like most Americans, believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual the right to bear arms. And we recognize the traditions of gun ownership that passed on from generation to generation—that hunting and shooting are part of a cherished national heritage.
That is similar to what Obama said as a presidential candidate in 2008, when he promised to "protect the rights of hunters and other law-abiding Americans to purchase, own, transport, and use guns for the purposes of hunting and target shooting." But as Ice-T could have told him, the main purpose of the constitutional right to keep and bear arms is not to facilitate hunting and target shooting; it is to facilitate self-defense, against both official oppression and private aggression. The rapper turned actor put it this way in a BBC interview noted yesterday by Damon Root:
The right to bear arms is because that's the last form of defense against tyranny. Not to hunt. It's to protect yourself from the police.
When a politician suggests the Second Amendment is all about hunting, he trivializes it, just as he would be trivializing the First Amendment by saying it's all about pornography. Here is another clue that voters should not put much faith in Obama's commitment to gun rights:
A lot of gun owners would agree that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of criminals—that they belong on the battlefield of war, not on the streets of our cities.
An AK-47 is a selective-fire assault rifle, illegal for civilians. Presumably Obama is referring to semiautomatic rifles that resemble the AK-47, many of which were banned under federal law until 2004. Hence he is blurring the distinction between machine guns and semiautomatic "assault weapons" while perpetuating the false idea that such guns are uniquely suited for crime and have no legitimate uses. As Steve Chapman notes in his column today, with reference to the Smith & Wesson M&P15 rifle used in last week's Aurora theater shootings, that is plainly not the case, given the size of the market for these guns and the tiny percentage of owners who commit crimes with them. This demonization of military-style rifles, which deliberately plays on "the weapons' menacing looks, coupled with the public's confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons" (as Josh Sugarmann of the Violence Policy Center admitted back in 1988), is an old trick of the anti-gun movement that the public may finally be seeing through. New York Times columnist Charles Blow notes (with dismay, of course) that a "2011 Gallup poll, in a reversal from previous polls, found that most people are now against an assault weapons ban." The fact that Obama is nevertheless sticking with this tactic, despite the long odds against reinstating the ban, is a gratuituous insult to people who care about gun rights.
So is Obama "the most anti-gun president in history," as the NRA warned he would be four years ago? Objectively, no. Political reality has deterred him from doing much of anything in this area, to the consternation of gun control activists. As Obama's lip service to gun rights and the tepidness of his policy proposals in the wake of the Aurora massacre show, he is keen to avoid anything that might alienate voters by seeming to confirm the NRA's portrayal. Given congressional resistance and the prospect of judicial review now that the Supreme Court has said the Second Amendment imposes limits on legislation, even a safely re-elected Obama is unlikely to take up the cause of gun control. But his current rhetoric and his past support for highly restrictive laws, including the D.C. and Chicago gun bans that were overturned by the Supreme Court, suggest the NRA has a pretty good handle on what Obama would do if Americans were not so adamant about clinging to their guns.