January 17, 2013

As soon as Barack Obama was declared winner of the presidential election last year, Florida Senator Marco Rubio put himself out there as the face of Republican reform. And on some issues, like immigration, Rubio has moved away from GOP orthodoxy. But that’s a special case; most Republicans agree that the party is doomed if it can’t attract Latino voters and other nonwhites. On issues that don’t obviously relate to the party’s long-term survival, Rubio is a conventional conservative, responding to a base that remains far to the right of the average American.

To wit, Rubio’s response to President Obama’s gun safety measures — which are modest in scope and broadly popular — is nothing short of hysterical:

“I actually think the president, and he just doesn’t have the guts to admit it, is not a believer in the Second Amendment, although he states that he is,” Rubio said on Fox News’s The O’Reilly Factor. “The Second Amendment is in the Constitution, I didn’t write the Constitution, and neither did you and neither did he. If he doesn’t want the Second Amendment to be in the Constitution, or if he wants to reform the Second Amendment, then have the guts to admit that.”

Of course, any honest accounting of Obama’s record will show a president who is neutral on gun rights, if not supportive. In early 2009, he signed a bill allowing concealed weapons into national parks, and later that year, he signed a bill allowing people to bring guns onto Amtrak trains. His next action on guns came two years later, after the massacre in Tucson, Arizona, when he called for a new national dialogue on guns. That December, however, his Justice Department shelved ideas for strengthening background checks for gun purchases.

Yesterday was the first time in his presidency that Obama took any affirmative action on gun control, and the measures presented are commonsensical reforms that fit in with the text of the Second Amendment and its interpretation by federal courts.

It’s worth noting that Rubio’s reason for opposing Obama’s proposals is also wrong on the merits:

“What the president is proposing is problematic for a couple of reasons but primarily because it doesn’t work…these ideas don’t work,” he said. “It’s not just Chicago, Washington DC had a very similar gun ban and it didn’t work, in fact violent crime and murder and all these things skyrocketed in Washington during the time of these bans.”

As Adam Serwer points out, Obama’s proposals — universal background checks, assault weapon bans, greater federal emphasis on gun safety — have nothing to do with the handgun bans in Chicago and Washington D.C. It’s a non-sequitur. The fact of the matter is that most gun deaths are the result of either accidents or crime, and in the case of the latter, most gun crime is committed by a small number of people. Efforts to prosecute gun offenders, remove illegal guns from circulation, and increase gun safety are likely to have some effect on the number of total gun deaths.

That said, it’s no surprise to see that Rubio is responding to such measures with ridiculous rhetoric. Republican lawmakers — even so-called reformers — must still respond to their supporters. And by and large, the GOP remains committed to the values of its right-wing base. Eventually, that might change, but not anytime soon.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.