Commentary Magazine


Did SCOTUS Ruling on Guns Help the Dems?

Yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling in McDonald v. City of Chicago was another major victory for supporters of the individual right to bear arms guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Building on the court’s 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller, which held that the individual right to own guns could not be abrogated by the federal government, this new decision applies to state and local gun laws that similarly attempt to ignore the Second Amendment.

The 5-4 decision in McDonald has cheered conservatives and further depressed liberals, whose attempts to re-interpret the Constitution to allow for complete bans on gun possession have now been stopped in their tracks. But according to Politico, there’s a silver lining in all this for the Democratic Party, which has long been the driving force behind pieces of anti-gun legislation that treated the Second Amendment as an 18th-century typo. Kasie Hunt writes that the McDonald decision has effectively ended all discussion about gun rights in the country, and that means “Democratic candidates across the map figure they have one less issue to worry about on the campaign trail. And they won’t have to defend against Republican attacks over gun rights and an, angry energized base of gun owners.”

If she’s right, that would be a big break for conservative Democrats in districts outside of liberal urban strongholds, who are burdened with defending their party’s stand on guns even if they claim to be pro-gun rights themselves. Indeed, Hunt goes so far as to claim that the “neutralization” of the gun issue and the influence of the National Rifle Association may make the difference in enabling the Democrats to hold onto their majorities in Congress.

But Democrats who think the court has silenced debate on the issue forever are kidding themselves. After all, the two decisive rulings reaffirming the meaning of the Second Amendment were 5-4 votes. That means the swing of even one vote on the court from the conservative majority to the liberal minority could change everything. That makes control of the Senate and the White House no less crucial in the future than it has been in the past for those who care about this issue. It’s true that conservative Democrats in the House can claim that this has nothing to do with them. But being a member of the political party that is currently replacing one of the four anti-Second Amendment votes (Justice John Paul Stevens) with another liberal, in the form of Elena Kagan, and which would, if they got the chance, happily replace any of the five members of the majority on this issue with a liberal who will tip the balance, is still a liability in those parts of the country where support for the Second Amendment is considered a matter of life and death.

Liberals may hope that the ruling dampens the ardor of conservatives who care about gun rights. But though Democrats like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is currently fighting an uphill battle to hold his seat in Nevada, may applaud the ruling in McDonald, voters know that he would vote to confirm a liberal, nominated by a Democratic president, who would overturn it, but that his Republican opponent would not do such a thing.

But even looking beyond the election, the idea that any Supreme Court ruling on the issue will end the political maelstrom on gun rights is almost certainly wrong. The court’s decision in Row v. Wade only rekindled the debate about abortion and the fact that most members of Congress and even the president have no direct power to either reaffirm or overturn Roe — except through the potential for change in the Supreme Court’s membership — hasn’t prevented abortion from remaining a hot-button political issue for decades. So long as there is a potential for either new legislation that will try to get around the Constitution or a switch in the composition of the court, there is little likelihood that the NRA will lower its guard or that its adherents will, even in a figurative sense, lay down their arms.