Presidents have vast influence in certain areas, such as foreign affairs, and their positions on those subjects command attention because their views could shape history. In other areas, presidents have considerably less influence. But their views matter still, because the positions they take give insight into their political philosophy, the premises from which they begin any consideration of public policy. Guns offer a perfect example.
John McCain — who picked a gleefully gun-totin’ running mate — is not a gun-rights absolutist. Among other things, he has supported bans on inexpensive handguns, favored requiring safety locks on firearms, and suggested the GOP should be open to closing the gun-show loophole.
Yet McCain’s general approach favors (a) preserving Second Amendment rights for law-abiding gun owners and (b) stiffer penalties for lawbreakers. He has opposed assault-rifle bans as well as nonsensical lawsuits seeking to hold gun manufacturers responsible for individual acts of gun violence. “Neither justice nor domestic peace [is] served by holding the innocent responsible for the acts of the criminal,” he says.
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And then there is Barack Obama — who said earlier this year that poor, rural Americans “cling to” guns like a security blanket.
The Democrat seems to have undergone a campaign conversion — he now claims to have “no intention of taking away folks’ guns.” But he frequently describes restrictions on gun ownership as “common sense,” and his statements supporting gun rights often come with a “but.” His record suggests a deep and strongly felt antipathy to gun rights. Rare is the anti-gun measure he has voted against.
He also takes pains to avoid saying he would oppose on principle even the most extreme gun-control proposals. Instead, he says they aren’t politically viable. A complete ban on handguns? That is “not politically practicable.” Take away the family deer rifle? “Even if I wanted to take it away, I couldn’t get it done. I don’t have the votes in Congress.” Licensing all firearms ownership? “I just don’t think we can get that done.” He has supported licensing all handgun owners, though, and in 2004 Obama backed national legislation forbidding anyone but law-enforcement officers to carry concealed firearms, even with a license.
A Dec. 13, 1999, article in the Chicago Defender reported on an appearance at an anti-gun rally at which “Obama outlined his anti-gun plan [including] banning the sale of firearms at gun shows except ‘antique’ weapons” — as well as (a) banning gun stores from any location within five miles of a school or a park, (b) banning inexpensive pistols, and (c) charging a homeowner with a felony if a weapon stolen from his home is used to cause harm, if the weapon was not properly secured.
In the wake of the Heller decision striking down D.C.’s handgun ban, Obama said he has “always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms, but . . . .” Last November he said the D.C. gun law was constitutional.
If a political candidate said he acknowledged a First Amendment right to free expression, but had supported seemingly every attempt at censorship that had ever crossed his path, it would be fair to call him disingenuous. If a professor of constitutional law did the same thing, it would be fair to call him something worse. Obama taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago.