A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Gunning for Obama

A messy set of facts makes for a plausible mailer attack on Obama.


Summary

A mailer sent from Clinton’s campaign to the homes of selected Indiana voters just before the Democratic primary goes after Obama for allegedly shifting his position on guns to suit his audience. The mailer’s not outright wrong in any of its statements. But the facts muddy the picture. 

  • Obama’s state Senate campaign in 1996 did say in a questionnaire that Obama favored banning handguns. But Obama says he personally didn’t answer the question, and that he’s never felt that way.
  • Obama has said he supports the Second Amendment as an individual right to bear arms. But he’s also said he believes that government can regulate that right.
  • Obama did say small-town Americans could be "bitter," and that they "cling to guns" and religion and other traditions. He actually said that those feelings were tied to being disappointed by politicians’ empty economic promises.

Analysis

We’re a little late for the voters of Indiana, who went to the polls today to choose between Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. The mailer, which was obtained by Talking Points Memo, appears to have arrived at people’s homes over the weekend. But with upcoming primary contests in West Virginia and other states with strong hunting traditions, and with the general election campaign yet to heat up, we suspect this issue will be back. 

The front of the post card features a rifle and an inset photo of Sen. Barack Obama, who is vying with Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. "Where does Barack Obama really stand on guns?" it asks. Flip it over for the answer: "Depends on who Barack Obama is talking to." It lists three bullet points:

  • First, Barack Obama told a group in Chicago he favored a ban on the manufacture, sale and possession of handguns.
  • Then, Barack Obama told people in Idaho he was for the 2nd Amendment, in order to get their votes.
  • And just this month, Barack Obama accused people in rural places and small towns of being "bitter" people who "cling to guns."

It closes with the line "What does Barack Obama really believe?"

Quarrel over a Questionnaire
 

Taking the postcard’s points in turn, the first one refers to a questionnaire his campaign filled out for a community group in Chicago when he first ran for Illinois state Senate in 1996. This isn’t the first time this candidate survey has come back to haunt him — nor is it the first time we’ve written about it. At the debate in Philadelphia last month, Obama denied that his handwriting was on the questionnaire completed for the Chicago nonprofit, Independent Voters of Illinois-Independent Precinct Organization.

He was wrong about that — his handwriting appears on a small part of the document — but he has continued to maintain that a campaign aide filled out the bulk of it, including the multipart question asking if he supported state legislation to ban assault weapons; ban manufacture, sale and possession of handguns; and require waiting periods and background checks before gun purchases. He answered "Yes" on all counts.

Obama says the answers misrepresent his position. "I have never favored an all-out ban on handguns," he said at the Philadelphia debate.

We can’t say for sure if he did or not. We haven’t been able to find any evidence that he acted on it if he did. In the Illinois Senate, he voted for gun control, including limiting handgun purchases to one a month, but no attempts at a ban that we are aware of. And he didn’t advocate a handgun ban when he was running for U.S. Senate. Still, the reason for the answer on the questionnaire remains unclear.

Constitutional Question

Bullet point #2: Did Obama tell Idaho voters he was for the Second Amendment at an appearance earlier this year (12 years after the questionnaire we described above, we might note)? Not in so many words, but essentially yes. According to the Associated Press article cited by the mailer itself, this is what Obama said to the crowd jammed into Boise State University’s basketball arena back in February:

Obama (Feb. 2): And then there are people who say, `Well, he doesn’t believe in the Second Amendment,’ even though I come from a state — we’ve got a lot of hunters in downstate Illinois. And I have no intention of taking away folks’ guns.

According to the Obama campaign website, he does believe that the Second Amendment creates an individual (rather than only a collective, or governmental) right to bear arms. He also believes that right is subject to governmental regulation. In an interview last month with the Chicago Sun-Times, Obama said:

Obama (April 25): My view continues to be that the constitution, I believe, does provide a right to bear arms; but that local communities, and state governments, as well as the federal government, have a right to common-sense regulations and firearm ownership [rules.] The truth is, obviously, the ban here in Chicago, the ban in D.C. is not keeping the guns out of our cities, and so I’m interested in just figuring out what works and I’m confident we can come up with laws that work and that pass constitutional muster and don’t infringe on the rights of lawful gun owners whether it’s in Downstate Illinois or rural Montana.

We’ll give the Clinton mailer a "True" on this one.

The Bitterness Pill

Bullet point #3 on the post card alludes to a misstep by Obama last month that’s been in the news practically daily ever since. In the words of the mailer, Obama "accused people in rural places and small towns of being ‘bitter’ people who ‘cling to guns.’"
 
Well, not quite. Here’s what Obama actually said last month to a group of donors in San Francisco:

Obama (April 6): You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

Now, Obama has said that "some of the words I chose, I chose badly" in that talk. But his remarks weren’t quite as condemning of small-town America as they’re made to sound in the mailer. The postcard leaves out the important economic link that Obama made between heartland dwellers and bitterness. These citizens aren’t born bitter; they’re bitter, according to Obama, because they’ve been let down by successive administrations that have promised economic recovery for their struggling communities.

Still, while we’d call the mailer’s wording a distortion, it wasn’t too far off from what Obama actually said.

So, what are we to make of this mailer? Depends. If you believe that Obama didn’t fill out the 1996 questionnaire and that it didn’t represent his views, then you probably believe his position has been fairly consistent over time — and perhaps that he’s been a bit condescending about rural America.

If you accept the ’96 questionnaire at face value, however, then you might believe that Obama’s position evolved over the course of 12 years — or that, as the mailer says, he tailors his views according to his audience.

We hate to dump this one back in the lap of you, the viewer. There’s a saying that bad facts make bad law. We’d posit a corollary, that messy facts make for inconclusive judgments.

As a postscript and point of interest, we offer you an interesting tidbit
dug up by a reader of The Politico. The rifle that Clinton’s campaign  pictured on the mailer apparently is a Mauser 66, an expensive (over $2,000) German gun with modifications, in the photo, that are popular in Europe but not the U.S. Moreover, the image is reversed, according to the website, "making it a nonexistent left-handed model of the Mauser 66 rifle."

Take it for what it’s worth.

-by Viveca Novak, with Jess Henig

Sources

Pickler, Nedra, "Obama Mentions God and guns in Idaho," The Associated Press. 2 Feb. 2008.

Pallasch, Abdon, "Laws alone can’t stop violence: Obama," Chicago Sun-Times. 25 April 2008.

Smith, Ben, "Clinton Mailing’s Gun Gaffe," Politico. 4 May 2008.

Fowler, Mayhill, "Obama: No Surprise That Hard-Pressed Pennsylvanians Turn Bitter," Huffington Post. 11 April 2008.