Barack Obama, who informs campaign audiences that he taught constitutional law for 10 years, might be expected to weigh in on the historic Second Amendment case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices are pondering whether the 1976 District of Columbia law effectively prohibiting personal gun ownership in the nation’s capital is constitutional. But Sen. Obama has not stated his position.
Obama, disagreeing with the D.C. government and gun control advocates, declares the Second Amendment’s "right of the people to keep and bear arms" applies to individuals, not just the "well-regulated militia" cited in the amendment. In the next breath, he asserts this constitutional guarantee does not preclude local "common sense" restrictions on firearms. Does the Draconian prohibition for Washington, D.C., fit that description? My attempts to get an answer have proved unavailing. The front-running Democratic presidential candidate is doing the gun dance.
That is a dance of many Democrats, revealed by my private conversations with the party’s strategists. As urban liberals, they reject constitutional protection for gun owners. As campaign managers, they want to avoid re-enacting the fate of many Democratic candidates who lost elections because of gun control advocacy. The party’s House leadership last year pulled off the floor a bill for a District of Columbia congressional seat in order to save Democratic members from having to vote on a Republican amendment against the D.C. gun law.
Hillary Clinton has extolled the Second Amendment, though not as far as Obama. Campaigning at Iowa’s Cornell College Dec. 5, he asserted that the Second Amendment "is an individual right and not just a right of the militia." He repeated that formulation along the primary trail, declaring at a Milwaukee press conference before the Feb. 19 Wisconsin primary: "I believe the Second Amendment means something. … There is an individual right to bear arms."
That implies that the D.C. gun law is unconstitutional. Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty’s brief to the Supreme Court rests on the proposition that the Second Amendment "protects the possession and use of guns only in service of an organized militia." Consequently, I deduced in a March 13 column about the case that Obama had "weighed in against the D.C. law."
On March 24, a reader e-mailed The Washington Post that "Obama supports the D.C. law" and demanded a correction. That was based on an Associated Press account of Obama’s Milwaukee press conference asserting that "he voiced support for the District of Columbia’s ban on handguns." In fact, all he said he was: "The notion that somehow local jurisdictions can’t initiate gun safety laws to deal with gang bangers and random shootings on the street isn’t born out by our Constitution."
That leaves Obama unrevealed on the D.C. law. In response to my inquiry about his specific position, Obama’s campaign e-mailed me a one paragraph answer: Obama believes that while the "Second Amendment creates an individual right … he also believes that the Constitution permits federal, state and local government to adopt reasonable and common sense gun safety measures." Though the paragraph is titled "Obama on the D.C. Court case," the specific gun ban is never mentioned. I tried again, without success, last week to learn Obama’s position before writing this column.
Obama’s dance on gun rights is part of his evolution from a radical young state legislator a few years ago. He was recorded in a 1996 questionnaire as advocating a ban on the manufacture, sale and possession of handguns (a position since disavowed). He was on the board of the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, which takes an aggressive gun control position, and in 2000 considered becoming its full-time president. In 2006, he voted with an 84 to 16 majority (and against Clinton) to prohibit confiscation of firearms during an emergency, but that is his only pro-gun vote in Springfield or Washington. The National Rifle Association (NRA) grades him (and Clinton) at "F."
There is no anti-gun litmus test for Democrats. In 2006, Ted Strickland was elected governor of Ohio and Bob Casey U.S. senator from Pennsylvania with NRA grades of "A." Following their model, Obama talks about the rights of "Americans to protect their families." He has not yet stated whether that right should exist in Washington, D.C.