In many ways, this presidential election features a reversal of a pattern we've gotten used to in recent campaigns. More often than not, it's the Republican who is self-assured and ideologically forthright, while the Democrat apologizes for what he believes, panders awkwardly, and generally acts terrified that the voting public might not like what he has to say. This time around, Barack Obama is the confident candidate, and Mitt Romney is the worried one (which says far more about these two men than it does about this particular historical moment). But there is one major exception to this pattern, on an issue that has re-emerged after being dormant for a decade and a half: guns. It isn't that Romney isn't pandering unpersuasively on the issue. What's different is that Barack Obama's campaign seems frightened of its own shadow and is trying hard to convince Americans that Obama is actually some kind of pro-gun president. Which, for all intents and purposes, he is.
A week and a half ago, Romney told the National Rifle Association (NRA) that if he makes it to the White House, he'll be in their corner. "We need a president who will enforce current laws, not create new ones that only serve to burden lawful gun owners," he said. "President Obama has not; I will." Romney got no more specific than that, for an obvious reason: the truth is that President Obama hasn't created any new laws on guns. Actually, that's not entirely true–Obama has signed two laws expanding gun rights, one allowing people to take guns on Amtrak trains, and another allowing guns to be taken into national parks. He hasn't tried to renew the assault-weapons ban, or proposed a national system of gun licensing, or adopted any of the other changes advocated by those who oppose gun proliferation.
After a long absence from the center of public discussion, the issue of guns has returned, thanks to the tragic death of Trayvon Martin and the "Stand Your Ground" law in Florida that may shield the man who killed him from a criminal conviction. While the NRA and its allies have been passing law after law on the state level designed to put guns in as many hands in as many places as possible, it has been nearly two decades since any federal legislation containing the proliferation of guns has been debated as though it had a chance of becoming law. It isn't difficult to discern the reason: Congressional Democrats are afraid. They may be horrified when Republican state legislatures pass laws like "Stand Your Ground," and aghast at each new mass shooting, but they think they're powerless to do much about it.
This fear is based on a series of myths about the gun issue in general and about the NRA in particular, as I've detailed elsewhere (see here, here, here, and here). No doubt the myth of Al Gore's 2000 loss looms large for Obama's advisers; as Politico's Roger Simon recently wrote, "If [Gore] had won Florida, he would have become president, but if he had won West Virginia, Tennessee or Arkansas—any of which was possible—he wouldn't have needed Florida. And West Virginia, Tennessee and Arkansas were where the gun lobby ran big ad campaigns against Al Gore." This is the standard story of 2000, one told hundreds of times. Despite the repetition, it is a story with no evidence to support it. Yes, Al Gore lost those three states, as did the Democratic nominees who followed him; those states are now firmly in the Republican column no matter what issues dominate the campaign. But there is precisely zero empirical evidence demonstrating that the gun issue was the reason Gore lost them. He also won swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, and Iowa—all of which have plenty of gun owners—largely on his strength among urban and suburban voters, who are more supportive of gun restrictions.
The idea that the gun issue could actually help a Democratic presidential candidate is something few people seem to contemplate. But polls point to a broad consensus among the American public on this issue, one that says that the Constitution provides for an individual right to own a gun, but that right can reasonably be limited in any number of ways. Just as few Americans think the freedom of religion allows you to conduct human sacrifice, the NRA's position that gun rights are almost without limit is held by only a tiny minority. Specific measures like a renewal of the assault-weapons ban, mandatory licensing for gun owners, waiting periods before gun purchases, and closing the gun-show loophole enjoy huge majority support—even, in many cases, among gun owners themselves. After the Gabrielle Giffords shooting last year, no less a gun enthusiast than Dick Cheney said it was probably time to ban the kind of high-capacity magazine that allowed Jared Loughner to kill and wound 20 people and have figured in so many other mass shootings. Yet the NRA would have politicians believe that if they support even the most modest and thoughtful limits on guns, they will inevitably be defeated at the polls. And of course, the group tries to convince people that whenever Republicans win, it is because of guns. When Republicans lose, they don't have much to say.
Obama is not going to win West Virginia, Tennessee, or Arkansas no matter what kind of campaign he runs or what issues he raises. And no matter what he does or doesn't do as president on guns, the NRA will fight him tooth and nail. It isn't as though his lack of action on the issue or his frequent statements of respect for the Second Amendment have lessened the NRA's determination to unseat him, or its laughably apocalyptic rhetoric. "All that first term, lip service to gun owners is just part of a massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters and hide his true intentions to destroy the Second Amendment during his second term," said NRA leader Wayne LaPierre at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year. "All of what we know is good and right about America, all of it could be lost if Barack Obama is re-elected."
If anyone was expecting the Obama campaign to take the opportunity of the Trayvon Martin shooting to initiate a debate on the wisdom of laws like "Stand Your Ground," they would have been sorely disappointed. On the day of Mitt Romney's NRA speech, former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, a co-chair of the Obama re-election campaign, wrote an op-ed lambasting Romney on guns—not for embracing the NRA's extreme positions but for flip-flopping from his previous support of restrictions when he was governor of Massachusetts. "Romney is hardly a consistent Second Amendment defender, or a lifelong sportsman, or a longtime gun owner," Strickland wrote. "But that's not the worst part. The worst part is that he pretends to be all these things—pandering shamelessly to voters just as he does on every issue under the sun." In other words, Strickland wasn't criticizing Romney for his recent turn toward gun-rights extremism; he was doing just the opposite, telling gun owners they can't trust Romney to be extremist enough. Strickland's comments were echoed by an Obama campaign spokesman. "The president's record makes clear that he supports and respects the Second Amendment, and we'll fight back against any attempts to mislead voters," he said. "Mitt Romney is going to have difficulty explaining why he quadrupled fees on gun owners in Massachusetts, then lied about being a lifelong hunter in an act of shameless pandering."
None of us can read minds, so we have no idea what either Romney or Obama really believes about guns deep in their hearts. But their secret beliefs, whatever they might be, don't matter. What matters is what they say, and more important, what they do. Mitt Romney is playing to his base (no surprise there). And Barack Obama is playing to Mitt Romney's base too, probably in the vain hope of avoiding the displeasure of the kind of extreme gun owners who believe the fairy tales the NRA tells them. Meanwhile, more than 10,000 Americans are murdered with guns every year.