NEW YORK—"Law-abiding citizens of the United States have the individual right to own a firearm," Dick Cheney told the National Rifle Association's annual convention on April 17. Should the Democrats recapture the White House, Cheney warned, that right would be imperiled. "John Kerry's approach to the Second Amendment has been to regulate, regulate and then regulate some more." NRA first vice president Sandra Froman echoed Cheney's campaign pitch to gun owners: "There is no greater threat to gun ownership than John Kerry as president." If Kerry campaign officials thought their candidate's Vietnam resume or membership in the NRA—he enjoys hunting as much as any red-blooded American—would inoculate them on the gun issue, they were as badly deluded as the folks who thought Saddam had WMDs.
The polls are clear: The outcome of this year's presidential election hinges on the economy and the war in Iraq, not guns. And while most Americans believe that they enjoy the right to carry firearms, they also favor government regulation. Nevertheless, Kerry would be wise to break ranks with his party's liberal base by declaring his enthusiastic support for the Second Amendment.
A polarized electorate neatly divided between the two major parties has created a high-stakes political climate in which relatively low-stakes "values issues"—partial-birth abortion, flag burning, "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance—may determine the outcome of such weightier matters as whether the United States ought to wage preemptive war. Had Al Gore convinced 270 Floridians that he would have been more likely than Bush to allow them to keep their guns, after all, we wouldn't be facing a projected $6 trillion federal deficit.
Besides, abolishing handguns is a lost cause. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, roughly 70 million Americans own more than 200 million guns—with four to five million new weapons manufactured annually. Even if Congress authorizes police to break down every door in the country to confiscate them—a task our military can't carry out in occupied nations subject to martial law, like Afghanistan or Iraq, let alone in Wyoming and New Jersey—the gun genie is never going to get stuffed back into the bottle.
The best argument for coming out as a pro-gun nut relates to the need for an adjustment to the long-term strategy of the Democratic Party. For too long, both parties have treated the Constitution like a Chinese menu. Republicans whittle away at the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and smear opponents who exercise their First Amendment right to free speech. Democrats rail against the states rights expressed by the Tenth Amendment and absurdly argue that the placement of a comma reflects the founders' original intent to limit gun ownership to members of 18th century militias. Aside from its fundamental intellectual dishonesty, our politicians' take-some-leave-others attitude deviates from most citizens' belief that every section of the Constitution holds equal weight.
Constitutional purism lies at the heart of libertarianism, one of the three main strains of American political thought—the big ideas that unite the overwhelming majority of American voters no matter where they live or how they vote. Two other primary impulses, liberal compassion and fiscal conservatism, also resonate with the electorate. (Bush sold himself as a "compassionate conservative" to co-opt the Democrats on caring; Clinton balanced the budget to steal away GOP prudence.) A party capable of synthesizing these three grounding impulses could form a virtually invincible majority for decades to come. And Democrats, forced into becoming the de facto party of fiscal conservatism, are currently in a better position than Republicans to adjust to such a majoritarian strategy.
Democrats, however, still need to make the libertarian case. That's where guns come in. Accepting and promising to defend the Constitution as a whole, including the Second Amendment, could jumpstart the return of the American left from the fringe to the mainstream. Kerry's endorsement of gun rights would not only neutralize a key GOP values issue; it would serve as a cultural signifier that he doesn't view hunters and other gun aficionados with (as Democratic political consultant David Sweet put it) "an urban, sophisticated mentality that sneers at their way of life."