Freedomnomics

Article published Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2008, at Philadelphia Inquirer.

Taking aim at Obama's stance on gun control: The candidate says he supports the right to bear arms. The record says otherwise.

By John R. Lott, Jr.

Barack Obama claims he is a friend of gun owners. He certainly has convinced the media.

On Thursday, the Los Angeles Times said the NRA's opposition to Obama seemed strange because "Obama does not oppose gun rights. He has made a point of pounding this home to rural audiences, telling them he has no intention of taking their guns away: not their shotguns, not their handguns, not anything."

From the Boston Globe to FactCheck.org, the media and their watchdogs have uncritically recited Obama's statement that he believes there is an individual right to own guns. How does Brooks Jackson, FactCheck.org's director, explain the NRA's opposition to Obama? He says: "They are lying. . . . They are just making this up."

Yet, while the media and their checkers take Obama's current statements about his beliefs at face value, the NRA doesn't. So who is right?

In Pennsylvania, the answer could alter the election outcome. With about one million of the country's 12.5 million hunters, Pennsylvanians spend more time hunting than the residents of any other state. Pennsylvania also has more concealed-handgun permit holders than any other state, about 600,000.

In June, when the Supreme Court struck down the gun ban in Washington, D.C., Obama claimed that the decision merely confirmed his own view. He told Fox News that 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."

But that doesn't square with statements Obama has made in the past. Just last November, Obama's campaign told the Chicago Tribune, "Obama believes the D.C. handgun law is constitutional." After Obama's later statement supporting the Supreme Court decision, the campaign disowned the Tribune quote as a staffer's "inartful attempt" to characterize his position.

Obama also blamed a 1996 statement supporting a handgun ban on a staffer's mistake. But Politico discovered a copy of the candidate's statement with Obama's own handwritten comments on it.

Obama personally voiced support for the D.C. ban at other times. In February, Leon Harris, a news anchor for the ABC affiliate in Washington, said to Obama: "One other issue that's of great importance here in the district as well is gun control . . . but you support the D.C. handgun ban." Obama's simple response: "Right." When Harris added "and you've said that it's constitutional," Obama again said "right," and he is clearly seen on tape nodding his head in agreement.

In fact, Obama has a long history of supporting city gun bans. The Associated Press described his vote on a gun-control bill in 2004: "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."

No major-party presidential nominee has ever had as strong and consistent an anti-gun record as Obama. Here is a politician who supported a ban on handguns in 1996, backed a ban on the sale of all semiautomatic guns in 1998 (which would encompass most guns sold in the country), and advocated banning gun sales within five miles of a school or park in 2004 (a virtual ban on all gun stores). He also served on the board of the Joyce Foundation, the largest private funder of anti-gun research in the country.

This evidence should be sufficient, but I have yet another reason to be skeptical. I knew Obama during the mid-1990s, when we were both at the University of Chicago Law School. Indeed, when I introduced myself to him, he said, "Oh, you are the gun guy."

I responded, "Yes, I guess so." His response, as I recall it, was, "I don't believe that people should be able to own guns."

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

Obama obviously thinks the gun issue is important. He and his surrogates constantly repeat the claim that he has always supported an individual right to own guns. But the media should stop uncritically reporting the claim without checking his past statements.

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

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