The NRA two-step

‘I will not take your shotgun away. I will not take your rifle away. I won’t take your handgun away.” Those words, intoned by Barack Obama at a Virginia campaign event in September, were a kind of incantation aimed at exorcising the ghost of Al Gore from the Democratic presidential race. Gore’s favorable stance on gun control was widely seen as a key factor in his loss to George W. Bush in 2000, and it’s not likely another Democrat will soon make the same mistake. Yet if Obama thought he was making any friends with the virulently pro-gun National Rifle Assn., he’s out of luck.

The NRA on Thursday officially endorsed John McCain, though that was merely a formality given that it had already spent $2.3 million on attack ads targeting Obama. This puts the organization in the odd position of throwing its considerable political clout behind a Republican candidate whom its official journal once called “one of the premier flag carriers for enemies of the 2nd Amendment,” and against a Democrat who never tires of telling voters that he believes in the right to bear arms. So what gives? Apparently, the NRA thinks that McCain’s past legislative sins against gun ownership are forgivable, while Obama’s are not.

The gun lobby was furious seven years ago when the McCain-Feingold bill threatened to limit the ability of advocacy groups like the NRA to sponsor political ads; McCain also prominently backed a bill that would have required dealers at gun shows to run background checks on buyers, a smart strategy for keeping guns out of the hands of criminals that horrifies the NRA. McCain’s choice of lifetime NRA member Sarah Palin as vice president, on the other hand, seems to have erased any doubts about his loyalty to the Colt-hugging crew.

Obama, meanwhile, is widely suspected of being a gun-control sympathizer despite his pro-gun rhetoric. He backed the federal ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004, and as an Illinois lawmaker he supported some gun-control bills, most of which failed. Even during the presidential campaign, he hasn’t ruled out “common-sense” efforts to lower the murder rate in big cities. That’s anathema to the NRA, which wants no one to abridge gang members’ right to slaughter one another.

Even if the NRA is right about Obama, he’s still not going to take Americans’ guns away. By striking down Washington’s handgun ban in June, the Supreme Court assured that it will be very difficult for the government to forbid gun ownership by law-abiding citizens in the future. It’s unclear whether the NRA cares; having won its 2nd Amendment battle, it’s now out to block any restriction on gun freedom, even the freedom of felons and the mentally ill to buy guns. There are dangers in such extremism, and they’ll become clearer as the body count rises.