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Obama and Guns: Two Different Views

Something happens to Democrats on the gun issue when they run for president. For John Kerry during 2004, it was awkwardly posing in brand new hunting gear at a seemingly endless series of hunting photo-ops.

But in what will probably be the most improbable change, the Politico reported on Saturday that Barack Obama was making a big play for gun votes in Pennsylvania. It is not particularly surprising that this change is occurring with the crucial Pennsylvania primary soon approaching.

With about one million of the country’s 12.5 million hunters, Pennsylvania is number one in the nation in the amount of time its citizens spend hunting. With about 600,000 people with permits to carry concealed handguns, Pennsylvania also has more permit holders than any other state.

Others, such as Jim Kessler, vice president for policy with Third Way, a progressive think tank, view Obama as starting to position himself for the general election.

Yet, it should be a hard sell.

Obama has consistently supported gun control legislation that came up while he was in the Illinois state legislature and the U.S. Senate.

For example, when Obama ran for the Illinois state senate the political group, Independent Voters of Illinois (IVI), asked him if he supported a “ban [on] the manufacture, sale and possession of handguns” and he responded “yes.”

Realizing how damaging this could prove in the general election, his presidential campaign “flatly denied” Obama ever held this view, blaming it instead on a staffer from his state senate race.

But then IVI provided Politico the questionnaire with Obama’s own handwritten notes revising another answer. Members of IVI’s board of directors, some of whom have worked on Obama’s past campaigns, told Politico that “I always believed those to be his views, what he really believes in, and he’s tailoring it now to make himself more palatable as a nationwide candidate.”

But the IVI questionnaire isn’t the only one out there.

In 1998, another questionnaire administered by IL State Legislative National Political Awareness Test didn’t ask about banning all handguns, but it did find that Obama wanted to “ban the sale or transfer of all forms of semi-automatic weapons.”

Indeed, such a ban would outlaw virtually all handguns and the vast majority of rifles sold in the United States.

In addition, from 1998 to 2001, Obama was on the board of directors for the Joyce Foundation, which funded such anti-gun groups as the Violence Policy Center, the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence, and Handgun Free America. Both the Violence Policy Center and Handgun Free America, as its name suggests, are in favor of a complete ban on handguns. During his tenure on the board, the Joyce Foundation was probably the major funder of pro-control research in the United States.

In fact, I knew Obama during the mid-1990s, and his answers to IVI’s question on guns fit well with the Obama that I knew. Indeed, the first time I introduced myself to him he said “Oh, you are the gun guy.”

I responded “Yes, I guess so.” He simply responded that “I don’t believe that people should be able to own guns.”

When I said it might be fun to talk about the question sometime and about his support of the city of Chicago’s lawsuit against the gun makers, he simply grimaced and turned away, ending the conversation.

If taken literally, Obama’s statement to me was closer to what the IL State Legislative National Political Awareness Test found, indicating that Obama's bans would extend well beyond handguns.

Obama also opposes the current laws in 48 states that let citizens carry concealed handguns for protection claiming, despite all the academic studies to the contrary, that "I think that creates a potential atmosphere where more innocent people could (get shot during) altercations."

Even Hillary Clinton disagrees with him on this.

The Obama campaign’s strategy largely follows 2003 surveys produced by Democratic pollster Mark Penn 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 was the same strategy that all the Democratic presidential candidates seemed to follow in 2004.

Earlier this year, Karlyn Bowman at the American Enterprise Institute said: “The Clinton and Obama campaigns know the public opinion data on the issue well. . . . the right to be able to own a gun seems to be firmly held, and I think that's why both candidates say what they say."

In practice, saying that Obama now believes that the Second Amendment means that there is an individual right to own guns doesn’t mean anything if it can’t even prevent guns from being banned. And even today, despite the pressure from the Pennsylvania primary, Obama is unwilling to state that DC’s or Chicago’s ban on guns are unconstitutional.

Obama’s website only recognizes two legitimate purposes for civilian ownership of guns: “hunting and target shooting.” The notion that people might want to protect themselves when the police are not around isn’t something that he sees as legitimate.

On both his Iraq and trade policies, Obama has already faced the embarrassing situations where his top advisors have had to tell people in other countries not to worry because he doesn’t believe what he is telling American voters.

With guns, it sure looks like Obama is again telling voters what they want to hear, not what he plans on doing.

*John Lott, is the author of "Freedomnomics" and a senior research scientist at the University of Maryland.

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