McCain Is a No Show on Guns

The Arizona senator's questionable commitment to Second Amendment rights

By Dave Kopel,

10/16/00 10:40 a.m., National Review Online

John McCain has apparently discovered that soft money has its merits, now that a California billionaire is funding his appearance in gun control commercials in Colorado and Oregon.

This might be considered a signal that McCain does not intend to seek the presidency in 2004. Ever since the NRA created its Institute for Legislative Action in 1976, it has been impossible for a candidate (other than an incumbent president) who supports gun control to win the Republican nomination (as Elizabeth Dole, Richard Lugar, and others have discovered). The difficulty is exacerbated by the great influence that Gun Owners of New Hampshire holds over the first-in-the-nation primary.

Indeed, it's difficult for a candidate with a good but imperfect pro-Second Amendment voting record to win a U.S. Senate race in Arizona — which may be one reason that Dennis DeConcini retired rather than face the Arizona electorate after he became a leading proponent of banning so-called "assault weapons."

Through 1998, McCain had a strong pro-gun voting record in Congress. In May 1999, McCain voted in favor of an NRA-supported provision that encouraged, but did not force, small-scale gun collectors who sell firearms occasionally at gun shows to run background checks on customers.

The next day, however, McCain led several Republican senators into Trent Lott's office and demanded that the vote be reversed. McCain thereby set in motion a process which turned Sen. Orrin Hatch's (R-UT) juvenile crime bill into a Second Amendment nightmare — including in it provisions that would have given the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms unlimited taxing and regulatory power over gun shows, and the de facto power to destroy gun shows. (Handgun Control, Inc., has successfully lobbied several local governments in California to ban gun shows entirely — even though all California gun transactions must follow background check laws written by HCI.)

Hatch's bill was already a civil-liberties disaster, even without the gun control. The House of Representatives, acting as the more temperate body, reformed the worst of the gun amendments. The gun provisions were split off from the rest of the bill, and House anti-gun Democrats, in conjunction with constitutionalist Republicans, defeated the softened gun bill, while the non-gun bill passed easily.

Fortunately, the intransigence of the White House and the Democratic leadership prevented a conference committee from coming to any agreement, and federalization of juvenile justice is not going to pass the current Congress in any form. No thanks to Senator McCain.

Once the 2000 presidential race narrowed to Bush versus McCain, Second Amendment activists overwhelmingly preferred Bush, agreeing with the Arizona State Rifle & Pistol Association's grading of Bush as a "B" and McCain as a "C-" (and Gore as an "F").

The press tended to agree; as Steve Brill pointed out, part of the media enthusiasm about McCain reflected a press consensus that McCain's pro-gun and anti-abortion statements on the campaign trail were "pandering" that did not reflect his true beliefs.

Nevertheless, the press is acting as if McCain's television commercials for gun control are as surprising as Charlton Heston demanding gun registration.

McCain, for his part, still claims to support Second Amendment rights; on national television appearances following his commercial blitz, he did oppose the Gore national handgun licensing proposal, and he endorsed the allowing of licensed, trained citizens to carry firearms for protection. (Currently allowed in 31 states, including Arizona).

So if McCain remains sincerely committed to Second Amendment rights, then he should have read the fine print on the Colorado and Oregon "gun show" initiatives that he is backing. For in truth, both of these initiatives are classic "bait and switch" tricks of the gun prohibition movement, and contain controls far more onerous than background checks at gun shows.

For example, the Colorado initiative says that a "gun show" includes any gun transaction where three or more people are present, or where 25 or more firearms are displayed. Thus, parents who give their 17-year-old daughter a BB gun for Christmas are running a "gun show" around the Christmas tree. (The Colorado proposal defines "firearm" to include BB guns, model rockets, and many other things that are not real firearms.)

Likewise, the Oregon initiative includes five-year record retention on buyers and sellers (a.k.a. gun-owner registration), eliminates the privacy of buyers' medical records, and does nothing to prevent or punish the abuse of personal records.

According to the Oregon Republican party, which unanimously voted to oppose Oregon's Measure 5, McCain's chief of staff Mark Salter called the party to ask about the issue — after McCain already made the commercial. Asked if McCain had read the Oregon initiative before taping the commercial, Salter said that McCain had not.

The Oregon Republican party issued a press release blasting McCain's "hypocrisy." The press release noted that "When Mark Salter was asked that if the ORP can document to Senator McCain there are major flaws in Measure 5, would the Senator reconsider his support for Measure 5 or consider pulling his TV spot. The answer was NO."

In the commercial, McCain claims that a legal loophole allows felons to buy and sell thousands of guns at gun shows. "Many were later used in crimes," McCain says. "That's wrong." Of course there's no data to support this assertion. In truth, two separate studies by the U.S. National Institute of Justice, other research, and even a study of Handgun Control's "educational" arm, reveals that gun shows barely even register statistically as a source of crime guns.

During the presidential primaries, McCain did well with independents, but was rejected by a large margin of Republican voters. Now, apparently, he is returning the favor. One effect of McCain's commercial may be to stimulate the turnout of anti-gun voters, most of whom are not likely to vote Republican. The Presidential election is so tight that it is possible that a narrow Gore win in Oregon could give us President Gore. Colorado is more solidly in the Bush camp, but Democrats believe that they have a real chance to take the state Senate by a one-vote margin, giving Democrats a major role in congressional redistricting.

More writings from the Independence Institute on gun shows. 

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