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Analysis: The Politics of the Gun Decision

Today's Supreme Court decision overturning the District of Columbia's ban on handguns this morning is dominating the headlines. But does it have political consequences?

Yes and no.

There's little doubt that in the last few years Democrats on a national level have made a concerted effort to move the party away from its push during the 1990s to restrict gun rights. That position was widely regarded as a stone-cold loser for the party for one main reason: It allowed Republicans to paint Democrats as culturally out of step with the average American. The gun issue became a stand-in for a broader argument that Democrats were the party of the white wine, coastal crowd while Republicans were, in essence, the party of the rest of America.

A quick look at recent polling suggests little appetite among the American public for further gun rights restrictions. Post polling director Jon Cohen writes in "Behind the Numbers" that nearly three quarters of all voters in the most recent Post-ABC News poll said that Americans have the right to own handguns.

That underlying political dynamic is what led Republicans to quickly leap on Barack Obama's comments earlier this year that "bitter" voters in small towns "cling" to their guns. The argument Republicans made during that brouhaha was not simply that Obama didn't understand the importance of gun rights but that he didn't understand the average American voter.

Given that backdrop, it's no secret that Democrats would like the coverage of today's Supreme Court ruling to disappear as quickly as possible while Republicans want to keep the media focused on the matter for days to come. Need evidence? Just look at the reactions of the two campaigns in the wake of the ruling this morning:

John McCain's statement was out within a half-hour of the decision ("Unlike Senator Obama, who refused to join me in signing a bipartisan amicus brief, I was pleased to express my support and call for the ruling issued today," he said, not missing the opportunity to twist the knife), and his campaign organized a conference call featuring Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kans.) and senior policy adviser Randy Scheunemann to discuss "Barack Obama's position on the D.C Gun Ban and record of partisanship.

Obama's campaign, on the other hand, waited until 12:15 p.m. ET to put out a carefully worded statement that simultaneously expressed his support for 2nd Amendment rights while also empathizing with the efforts of cities to reduce gun violence.

"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," said Obama. "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."

All that said, it would be a mistake to assign too much political importance to today's decision. Gun rights are, by and large, a niche issue with little ability to move the political meter.

In the most recent Post-ABC national poll, just one percent of voters said that guns and/or gun control were the most most important issue in the election.

Even in the aftermath of high-profile incidents of gun violence -- the shootings at Columbine High School in the late 1990s and the Virginia Tech shootings last year -- there was no significant movement in either the number of people who ranked gun control as a priority issue or the number of people who supported an individual's right to own a gun.

Here's what we wrote on the politics of gun control in in the immediate aftermath of Virginia Tech:

"Given the fairly entrenched views about gun control and apparent disconnect between tragedy and public opinion, it seems unlikely that the shootings at Virginia Tech will have a lasting impact on the political debate over guns. While a solid majority of Americans believes that some gun control makes sense, they are generally opposed to banning guns entirely and would simply prefer to see the current laws enforced. The public also tends to blame cultural factors as much or more than the availability of firearms for tragedies like this one. And, the National Rifle Association is one of the most powerful lobbies in the country, closely monitoring and fighting any attempts to restrict gun rights. That vigilance has largely kept gun control legislation at bay over the past several years."

That still goes today, The Fix humbly submits. The minds of the American people were made up long ago when it comes to guns and gun control. External forces -- including today's decision -- seem unlikely to move big blocs of voters toward (or from) either candidate.

By Chris Cillizza  |  June 26, 2008; 1:41 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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