John Kerry’s flip-flopping on the Iraq war is well known. His statements on hotly contested social issues have also been all over the place. (Kerry says that that life starts at conception, but he votes consistently in favor of abortion.) On guns, the senator’s position is even more confusing.
Last Tuesday Kerry’s campaign claimed: “John Kerry’s opponents are worried because he’s the first Democratic candidate to support Second Amendment gun rights and to be an avid hunter…. The Republican Party and George Bush’s campaign will stop at nothing to mislead voters about John Kerry’s record.” Campaigning in St. Louis last Thursday, Kerry again claimed, “I support the Second Amendment. I’ve been a hunter all my life.” Earlier this year, Kerry said, “I believe that the Constitution, our laws and our customs protect law-abiding American citizens’ right to own firearms.” If you believe some of the responses from voters, Kerry’s statements and his constant photo-ops with guns have convinced many that he supports gun rights.
Yet, according to those on both sides of the gun debate–the Brady Campaign and the NRA–Kerry has voted for every gun-control bill before the Senate over the last 18 years. He has consistently voted for restrictions, from banning semi-automatic guns to mandating storage rules. He refused to rein in the lawsuits against gun-makers.
Kerry has also voted to ban hunting on federal land and to ban most center-fire rifle ammunition, including the rounds most commonly used by hunters (positions that please the animal-rights groups, with whom he also has a perfect voting record of support).
Kerry has hesitated little in claiming to be everyone’s friend. This year Kerry told outdoor writers about his commitment to hunters and that “I do a better job of fighting for the rights of sportsmen than George Bush does.” Addressing the Humane Society, he bragged that “I’ve had my name on every piece of animal-rights legislation ever passed by Congress!”
Of course, Kerry’s claims about being “the first Democratic candidate to support Second Amendment gun rights and to be an avid hunter” are nonsense. John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton all have hunted. Clinton went hunting frequently while he was governor and John Kennedy hunted deer at least once. Johnson was famous for bringing politicians to his ranch and demanding that they go hunting as a test of their manhood. Carter was a genuinely avid hunter and tracked everything from possum to deer to duck; he starting hunting with his dad as a young child. Both Kennedy and Johnson were NRA members.
Possibly the Kerry campaign meant that he was the only Democratic candidate this year who supported the Second Amendment. But what was most striking this year was that all the Democratic presidential candidates had extremely uniform views on guns. In essentially the same language, all said they supported the Second Amendment as protecting the right of individuals to own guns, subject to “reasonable restrictions.”
It is not surprising that last year Democratic pollster Mark Penn produced surveys showing that if Democrats didn’t show “respect for the 2nd 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 2nd Amendment, but that they want tough laws that close loopholes. This is something [Democrats] can run on and win on.” It hasn’t been lost on Kerry and other Democrats that Bill Clinton and Democratic strategists believe that Al Gore’s strong stand for gun control probably cost him states such as Tennessee–and thus the 2000 presidential election.
But even if this sudden conversion by Democrats was actually heartfelt, where is the line drawn on reasonable restrictions? What does it mean to the Democrats that the Second Amendment is an individual right? During January this year, the policy gurus for the five leading Democratic presidential campaigns pitched their candidates at an American Enterprise Institute breakfast in Washington. Given their candidates’ stated support for the right of individuals to own guns, I asked where the candidates stood on, say, the bans on handgun ownership in Chicago and the District of Columbia?
Only Joe Lieberman’s representative answered the question. Lieberman “would oppose an outright ban on handguns, and he is not afraid to say so.” He challenged the other Democrats to join him. But Kerry’s representative, as well as those for Dean, Edwards, and Clark, all refused to respond.
Polling may have convinced Kerry to change his rhetoric, but his voting record and his refusal to “oppose an outright ban on handguns” show his constant endorsements of the Second Amendment mean little.
–John R. Lott, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of More Guns, Less Crime and The Bias Against Guns.