In an unusually political Super Bowl spot, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino took to the airwaves to promote their gun-control organization, Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Wearing Giants and Patriots jerseys, respectively, the two mayors told viewers, “We don’t agree on much, but we both support the Second Amendment and believe America must do more to keep guns out of the hands of criminals,” said the ad, which ran in selected local markets. The goal of the ad was apparently to bring renewed attention to the issue and encourage President Obama to emphasize gun control in the upcoming election.
Gun-control proponents can only pray that Obama doesn’t take Menino and Bloomberg’s bait. Making gun control a more important issue in the election would be a terrible mistake for the president—and for the cause of gun control.
President Obama focusing on gun control this year would only stimulate gun-related interest groups, like the National Rifle Association, and encourage them to spend even more money to turn out the vote for Republican candidates. Of course the gun lobby is going to oppose Obama’s reelection no matter what. The NRA and its allies, however, have a credibility problem on this issue. Ever since Obama won the Democratic Party nomination in 2008, the NRA has been ominously warning gun owners about what the organization calls Obama’s “10 Point Plan to ‘Change’ the Second Amendment.” The NRA promised that Obama would “ban [the] use of firearms for home self-defense,” “pass federal laws eliminating your right-to-carry,” and “close down 90 percent of the gun shops in America.” None of these things has happened.
To all but the most hardline gun-rights advocates, Obama certainly hasn’t looked much like a gun-grabbing, Second Amendment–hating bogeyman. In his first two years in office, Obama actually made the nation’s gun laws more permissive. He reversed regulations put in place by President George W. Bush that barred passengers from bringing firearms on Amtrak trains and loosened laws on carrying guns in national parks. Indeed, the Brady Center, the nation’s leading gun-control organization, gave Obama an “F” grade on their Gun Violence Prevention Report Card. Meanwhile, gun owners have been buoyed by recent Supreme Court rulings that strongly endorsed the right of individuals to own guns.
For many pro-gun independents, Obama is not seen as a real threat to gun rights. They are focused on more pressing issues, like the economy and jobs. If Obama starts talking about gun control, however, they may begin to believe the NRA’s dire warnings. And the impact will be felt not just in the presidential race. It will hurt Democrats all the way down the ballot. Recall that when the Newt Gingrich–led Republicans seized control of the House in 1994, President Bill Clinton blamed the gun-control laws he himself had pushed through during his first two years in office. Obama’s talking about guns would be a disaster for Democrats and—necessarily—for the prospects of new gun control.
The most likely result of Obama focusing on gun control would be, ironically, less gun control. Republicans in Congress have been pushing for a national right-to-carry law that would require every state to recognize permits to carry concealed weapons issued in other states. If the law is enacted, gun owners will be able to obtain a concealed carry permit in a state like Utah, which makes it easy to get a permit, and carry their firearms in states that otherwise strictly limit such licenses, like Bloomberg’s New York and Menino’s Massachusetts. Democrats have succeeded in fighting off passage of the law by the thinnest of margins. If Republicans gain additional seats in Congress or win the presidency, they can be counted on to jump-start efforts to pass the law.
For gun-control proponents, the sad truth is that no effective gun-control measure has even a remote possibility of being enacted in the next Congress. Republicans, who regardless of what Obama does, are certain to maintain their majority in the House, are steadfastly opposed to all the gun-control proposals endorsed by Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Perhaps Bloomberg and Menino would like Obama to stand up for gun control as a matter of principle. In this case, however, Obama would be tilting at windmills.
Democrats have never been very good at talking about guns. In 1976, when Democrats first realized that being anti-gun was costly come Election Day, they foolishly added a plank to the party platform that endorsed “the right of sportsmen to possess guns for purely hunting and target-shooting purposes.” That hardly resonated with gun owners, many of whom value the right to bear arms for self-defense. To them the Second Amendment isn’t about duck hunting. It’s about protecting yourself from violent criminals.
Besides, any effort to bring attention to gun control is likely to remind voters of the budding “Fast and Furious” scandal. So far, the president hasn’t been hurt much by the botched gun sting that allowed approximately 2,000 guns to be sold to suppliers of the über-violent Mexican drug cartels. The media hasn’t devoted much attention to the scandal, despite the fact that a U.S. border agent was subsequently killed in a shootout at which Fast and Furious guns were found. Republicans, including all the party’s remaining candidates for the presidential nomination, have called for the resignation of Attorney General Eric Holder, whose Justice Department oversaw the agency that conducted the operation. Republicans would relish any effort by Obama to help them focus the nation’s attention on this costly and embarrassing program.
Gun violence is a serious issue that deserves our leaders’ attention. Yet given the obvious downside risk of promoting gun control in an election year, gun-control advocates should hope that, when it comes to guns, Obama just keeps his mouth shut.