Obama's Second-Amendment Dance

By Robert D. Novak
Monday, April 7, 2008

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 Obama has not stated his position.

Obama, disagreeing with the D.C. government and gun control advocates, declares that the Second Amendment's "right of the people to keep and bear arms" applies to individuals, not just the "well regulated militia" in the amendment. In the next breath, he asserts that this constitutional guarantee does not preclude local "common sense" restrictions on firearms. Does the draconian prohibition in Washington 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 that many Democrats do, as revealed in private conversation with party strategists. As urban liberals, they reject constitutional protection for gun owners. As campaign managers, they want to avoid the fate of the many Democratic candidates who have lost elections because of gun control advocacy. The party's House leadership last year pulled from the floor a bill for a congressional seat for the District to protect 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 to the degree Obama has. Campaigning at Iowa's Cornell College on Dec. 5, he asserted that the Second Amendment "is an individual right and not just a right of the militia." He has repeated that formulation along the primary trail, declaring at a Milwaukee news conference before the Feb. 19 Wisconsin primary: "I believe the Second Amendment means something. . . . There is an individual right to bear arms."

That would imply that the D.C. gun law is unconstitutional. 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 concluded in a March 13 column about the case that Obama had "weighed in against the D.C. law."

On March 24, a reader wrote in an e-mail to The Post that "Obama supports the D.C. law" and demanded a correction. That was based on an Associated Press account of Obama's Milwaukee news conference asserting that "he voiced support for the District of Columbia's ban on handguns." In fact, all he said 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 borne 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," that specific gun ban is never mentioned. I tried again last week, without success, to learn Obama's position before writing this column.

Obama's dance on gun rights is part of his evolution from the radical young Illinois state legislator he once was. He was recorded in a 1996 questionnaire as advocating a ban on the manufacture, sale and possession of handguns (a position he has 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 grades his voting record (and Clinton's) an "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.

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