By JOHN R. LOTT JR. | Posted Thursday, July 24, 2008 4:20 PM PT
Sen. Barack Obama claims there has been only a "shift in emphasis," not "wild shifts," in his political positions. Many already know the list: Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, NAFTA, public financing of campaigns, abortion, gay marriage, Social Security taxes, the death penalty and negotiating with rogue nations.
Possibly one of the more remarkable changes has been his position on guns.
But despite Obama's recent concession on "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" that there has been a "shift in emphasis" on various issues, on guns he held firm: "You mentioned the gun position. I've been talking about the Second Amendment being an individual right for the last year and a half. So there wasn't a shift there."
Unfortunately, the interviewer, Gwen Ifill, didn't challenge his claim.
The day the Supreme Court struck Washington, D.C.'s gun ban, Obama claimed the court's decision merely confirmed his own view. He told Fox News he had "said consistently that I believe that the Second Amendment is an individual right, and that was the essential decision that the Supreme Court came down on."
So has Obama consistently supported individuals' rights to own guns and opposed the D.C. handgun ban?
Last November, Obama's campaign told the Chicago Tribune that "Obama believes the D.C. handgun law is constitutional." After Obama's statement supporting the Supreme Court striking down the ban, the campaign quickly disowned the Chicago Tribune quote as a staffer's "inartful attempt" to characterize his position.
Unfortunately, however, Obama personally voiced support for the D.C. ban at other times. In February, he did this himself, not something that he could blame on a staffer.
ABC's local Washington, D.C., anchor Leon Harris asked Obama: "One other issue that's of great importance here in the district as well is gun control. You said in Idaho recently . . . 'I have no intention of taking away folks' guns,' but you support the D.C. handgun ban." Obama's simple response: "Right." When Harris said "And you've said that it's constitutional," Obama is clearly seen on tape nodding his head yes.
But this is not new. Obama has a long history of supporting city gun bans. As the Associated Press described his 2004 vote on a gun control bill:
"He also opposed letting people use a self-defense argument if charged with violating local handgun bans by using weapons in their homes. The bill was a reaction to a Chicago-area man who, after shooting an intruder, was charged with a handgun violation."
Obama's statement on "NewsHour" added a new qualifier that he has been making the individual right position "for the last year and a half." Previous statements have simply said that he has had "consistently" held that position on guns. But all the changes are causing confusion among Obama's own advisers.
One adviser, Stanford Law Professor Larry Lessig, said last week on Hugh Hewitt's national radio show that "Barack Obama is not a lefty. . . . I think that he has always been an individual rights person on the Second Amendment."
No matter Obama's current position, no major party presidential nominee has probably ever had as strong and consistent an anti-gun record. Here is a politician who supported a ban on handguns in 1996, backed a ban on the sale of all semiautomatic guns in 1998 (a ban that would encompass the vast majority of guns sold in the U.S.), advocated in 2004 banning gun sales within five miles of a school or park (essentially a ban on virtually all gun stores), as well as served on the board of the Joyce Foundation, probably the largest private funder of anti-gun and pro-ban research in the country.
Difficult questions still remain. With new legal cases being filed against Chicago's gun ban over the last couple of weeks, somebody in the media is going to eventually have to ask Obama why he has not only never spoken out against Chicago's ban, he actively supported it.
Or, what do his positions mean for Supreme Court nominees? How will Obama reconcile his new position with the fact that all the members of the Supreme Court whom he reveres and whom his appointees would be like voted that the Second Amendment is not an individual right? These justices went even further and argued that even if the Amendment guaranteed such a right, D.C.'s ban does not infringe people's rights to own guns.
Obama obviously thinks the gun issue is important. Why else is it one issue on which he won't admit shifting emphasis? But would anyone believe a promise by him that his judicial nominees wouldn't vote to reverse the court's close 5-to-4 decision on the Second Amendment?
Lott is a senior research scientist at the University of Maryland and the author of "Freedomnomics."