Gun owners represent at least 4 million of the nation's most dedicated voters, and in election after election, they affect the outcome. Sometimes they elect politicians who are corrupt or unabashed lackeys of corporate interests — people whose only appeal to gun owners is that they promise to leave the Second Amendment alone.
Now, however, the Second Amendment is more resistant to any politician who might want to mess with it. The Supreme Court's recent Heller decision declared Washington, D.C.'s restrictive firearms laws unconstitutional, thus weakening the power of state and local politicians to control guns or limit gun ownership.
According to Dave Workman, the senior editor of GunWeek, a publication of the Bellevue, Wash.-based Second Amendment Foundation, the Clinton-era assault weapons ban was overwhelmingly supported by the gun control movement. He said "it represented a federal ban on firearms based on cosmetic circumstances — what they looked like — not on their lethality. It was to condition the public to accept a piecemeal destruction of the Second Amendment."
Workman said that there are a lot of pro-gun Democrats now, and gun advocates "are not the one-mind, one-thought Neanderthals that many liberals believe us to be. But the Republican Party remains the party of the gun owners, because the most entrenched Democrats are the old-left, dust-gathering anti-gun, anti-liberty politicians, and when the Democrats have a majority, it puts those people in charge."
The gun vote almost always goes to Republicans for other reasons as well. Gun ownership is highest in rural areas, where self-sufficiency is a virtue, and the Republicans, despite all, have retained the cachet of being the party of boot-strappers. Hunting for meat is a prime example of self-sufficiency, and guns are a part of that sense of self-reliance. One does not give up guns simply because some people use them illegally and create fear and tragedy.
Many Americans value the Second Amendment for a very old reason: as a guarantee that tyranny will be opposed. They believe that the Second Amendment guarantees the existence of all the other amendments, and that, to paraphrase Machiavelli, an armed man is a citizen, and an unarmed man is a subject. That doesn't mean that an American who chooses to be unarmed is any less of a citizen, but if we lose the choice to be armed, we have more or less lost the value of our citizenship.
The gun-rights advocates have their own contradictions, though. They have failed to explain why, if they despise government power, they consistently vote for a political party that has claimed government authority over decisions like abortion, religion and marriage rights. Although gun rights and social conservatism may appeal to the same kinds of people, they are actually two opposing ideas. To hold them both smacks of a citizen who does not really value liberty at all, but wants a government empowered to enforce his or her values on everyone else.
Single-issue gun-rights voters are especially destructive when it comes to environmental issues. Year after year, Republican politicians swear allegiance to the Second Amendment, an act that costs them nothing. Then they support measures to exploit, degrade, and even sell off the public lands and waters that hunters and fishermen depend on. Neither the NRA nor the gun voters themselves do anything to protest this.
The gun vote has gone to anti-environment politicians for so long now that millions of non-hunting American no longer associate hunters with conservation, even though sportsmen have painstakingly restored wildlife and habitat, rivers and lands, with their gun and ammunition tax dollars, their license fees and waterfowl stamps.
This will eventually backfire on gun owners. In a society increasingly disconnected from nature and hunting, with places to shoot growing scarcer all the time, fewer citizens grow up in a traditional gun culture. That means fewer hunters will fund assets like the federal Wildlife Refuge system, and fewer shooters will respond to future, inevitable challenges to the Second Amendment.
It is not too late for a new vision. If the Democratic Party would recognize the Second Amendment as the Supreme Court has interpreted it in the Heller decision -- reassuring gun voters that the years of backdoor maneuvers to promote gun control are over -- the Republican deadlock on the gun vote could be broken. It seems a small price for the Democrats to pay. All they have to do is recognize the Constitution.
Hal Herring is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a contributing editor at Field and Stream and lives in Augusta, Montana.