John Kerry doesn’t want to alienate gun owners. Just this past weekend, during the NRA’s annual convention, Kerry’s campaign issued a statement that the senator “is a lifelong hunter, supports the Second Amendment and will defend hunting rights.” Previously, before the Iowa caucuses, Kerry even took time out for a well-publicized pheasant shoot.
Of course, Kerry wasn’t alone in speaking out in favor of the Second Amendment. The most remarkable aspect of the Democratic presidential primaries this year was the universal agreement by candidates on guns. All the Democrats claimed that the Second Amendment guaranteed people the right to own guns.
Possibly, with all this agreement, it is not surprising to learn that last year Democratic pollster Mark Penn produced surveys showing that if Democrats didn’t show “respect for the Second Amendment and support gun safety,” voters would presume that they were anti-gun. “The formula for Democrats,” according to Penn, “is to say that they support the Second Amendment, but that they want tough laws that close loopholes. This is something [Democrats] can run on and win on.” Remember, Bill Clinton and Democratic strategists are on the record as saying that too strong a stand for gun control probably cost Al Gore the 2000 presidential election.
Yet the whole notion of marketing Kerry as sympathetic to gun owners has always been a tough sell. For someone like Howard Dean, the question was at least debatable. For Kerry, however, gun-control organizations have rated him as having a perfect record on gun control over his entire political career. Even this spring, when legislation to rein in abusive lawsuits against gun makers was voted on by the Senate, Kerry consistently supported gun-control efforts.
In January, the policy directors for the Democratic presidential campaigns pitched their candidates at an AEI-sponsored breakfast in Washington. Given their candidates’ stated support for the right of individuals to own guns, they were asked where their candidates would draw the line on reasonable restrictions. Where do they stand on, say, the bans on handgun ownership in Chicago and the District of Columbia?
Only Joe Lieberman’s representative answered the question. The now-former Democratic candidate “would oppose an outright ban on handguns, and he is not afraid to say so.” And the others? Dean’s senior advisor, Maria Echaveste, refused to be pinned down, because that would be giving in to “wedge-issue” politics “as opposed to really talking about values that are fundamental to all candidates and to the American people.” Representatives for Kerry, Edwards, and Clark would not respond.
Supporting “reasonable restrictions” sounds moderate, but is an ownership ban “reasonable”? And, if so, what exactly does guaranteeing an individual right really mean?
Polling may have convinced Senator Kerry to change his rhetoric, but when he can’t even “oppose an outright ban on handguns,” the rhetoric is pretty empty.
–John Lott, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of The Bias Against Guns and More Guns, Less Crime.