The Supreme Court Ruling and Gun Politics

The Supreme Court ruling against state and local handgun bans may seem like something Democrats and gun-control supporters would rail against, as it struck down the most fundamental of gun-control measures, and with it the endgame that anyone who dislikes guns would most fundamentally want to achieve: a society in which personal gun ownership is forbidden.

But it's not: although the Second Amendment continues to evoke passion as a political issue, the court's ruling actually expresses a kind of middle-of-the-road consensus, one that many saw coming after the court issued a similar ruling in 2008 striking down D.C.'s own handgun ban.

The NRA and the Brady Campaign, the nation's two most prominent gun groups, both seem content. NRA chief lobbyist Chris Cox told Politico's Ben Smith that the court "said what we've been saying all along" and disclosed that the NRA is readying many lawsuits against gun-control measures across the country. Brady Campaign President Paul Helmke, meanwhile, said that "the crucial part of the ruling today is that it really is fairly narrow," noting that the court acknowledged gun-control restrictions that fall short of bans.

"The one extreme of handgun bans, total gun bans, that's off the table now. But they've also taken the extreme any gun, anywhere, anybody, anytime--that's off the table too," Helmke said.

Gun-lobbying groups and politicians have had two years to rehearse their responses to a ruling against gun bans, after the ruling against D.C.'s ban, which came down during a presidential election and saw then-candidate Obama issue a somewhat guarded statement on it.

At the time, President Obama praised the court's "much-needed guidance" on the Second Amendment in Heller v. District of Columbia. Still a candidate for office, he responded to the DC ruling:
I have always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms, but I also identify with the need for crime-ravaged communities to save their children from the violence that plagues our streets through common-sense, effective safety measures. The Supreme Court has now endorsed that view, and while it ruled that the D.C. gun ban went too far, Justice Scalia himself acknowledged that this right is not absolute and subject to reasonable regulations enacted by local communities to keep their streets safe. Today's ruling, the first clear statement on this issue in 127 years, will provide much-needed guidance to local jurisdictions across the country.

As President, I will uphold the constitutional rights of law-abiding gun-owners, hunters, and sportsmen. I know that what works in Chicago may not work in Cheyenne. We can work together to enact common-sense laws, like closing the gun show loophole and improving our background check system, so that guns do not fall into the hands of terrorists or criminals. Today's decision reinforces that if we act responsibly, we can both protect the constitutional right to bear arms and keep our communities and our children safe.

Obama's stance on gun control became a campaign issue. He seemed to support Chicago's gun ban in the above statement, but a spokeswoman later said he didn't mean he thought the ban was constitutional. The campaign had disavowed as "inartful" a previous statement by an aide that the Chicago ban was okay.  As a candidate for president, Obama couldn't support gun bans en masse: he was trying to win votes in areas that vehemently oppose them, including some areas represented in Congress by Democrats.

Flash forward to today, as the court has just ruled against Chicago's ban. The White House has not issued on a statement on it, and nor has the Democratic National Committee. But two powerful Democrats in the Senate have issued statements supporting the Chicago ruling.

As Salon's Natasha Lennard noted earlier, Harry Reid, while one of the most powerful Democrats in the land, is conservative on guns; in reacting to the Supreme Court's ruling against Chicago's handgun ban, Reid praised its meaning for the Second Amendment:

With today's ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court has helped ensure that the 2nd Amendment rights of Americans will be protected in all corners of our country.  The right to bear arms is one of the essential freedoms on which our country was founded.  I am pleased that the high court has taken steps in both the Heller and McDonald cases to guarantee this fundamental right.  I supported individual gun rights in a bipartisan congressional amicus brief to the court, and I am glad they agreed with my position.

And Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democratic senator from Vermont, likes it too. Here's Leahy's statement, issued through his committee office:

In its decision today in McDonald v. Chicago, the Supreme Court, following its decision in Heller, ruled that the Second Amendment applies equally to the states in addition to the federal government.  At the heart of this case is the fundamental right to protect oneself in the home.  Today's opinion will ensure that any firearm regulation must be measured against the right the Second Amendment secures.  

I support the Court's decision and believe that today's opinion strengthens the protections of our Bill of Rights.  Although state and local governments will now have to proceed more carefully when enacting firearms regulations, it will be in respect of a right that belongs to all Americans.

At the national level, Democrats don't support gun control too aggressively. The first sentence of the Democratic Party's platform on firearms is, "We recognize that the right to bear arms is an important part of the American tradition, and we will preserve Americans' Second Amendment right to own and use firearms."

This all goes to show that gun politics aren't so binary. Stances on gun control can be highly geographic; in inner cities where populations are dense and gun violence is prevalent, gun control seems to enjoy more support (hence Obama's Cheyenne vs. Chicago distinction), but even Leahy, from the northeastern state of Vermont, supports the ruling.

Tempered by the political imperative to interpret the Second Amendment more literally in pro-gun areas, not even Democratic presidential candidates are vociferously anti-gun. Based on reactions to the Supreme Court's ruling, legal ownership of handguns is within the wheelhouse of national political consensus.