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Bill Adair
By Bill Adair July 24, 2008
Robert Farley
By Robert Farley July 24, 2008

On the fence . . . consistently

A new TV ad from the conservative group Let Freedom Ring says Sen. Barack Obama is a flip-flopper.

The ad begins with Obama surrounded by newspaper headlines, with the words "FLIP-FLOPPER?" on the screen.

"People are saying that Sen. Obama's recent changes of position have made him a flip-flopper," the announcer says. "He's not! Flip-floppers only hold one position at a time."

As photos show Obama talking from both sides of the screen, the announcer says "Sen. Obama is different: He holds two positions at the same time."

The announcer then lists the issues on which Obama has allegedly flipped: "Both ways on banning handguns . . . Both ways on public campaign financing. ... And now, both ways on withdrawing from Iraq."

The ad concludes, "He's 'Both Ways Barack.' Worse than a flip-flopper!"

We address other claims from the ad in this article. Here, we'll address the allegation about flip-flopping on gun control. (Much of our material below comes from our previous ruling on Sen. John McCain's flip-flop allegation.)

When the Supreme Court in June 2008 ruled that the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to possess a firearm and that the Washington, D.C., gun ban is unconstitutional, Obama and John McCain issued statements with their reactions.

McCain quickly pronounced it "a landmark victory for Second Amendment freedom." McCain noted that while he was among a bipartisan (though mostly Republican) group of congressmen who signed a "friend of the court" brief arguing against the D.C. law, Obama did not.

"Unlike the elitist view that believes Americans cling to guns out of bitterness," McCain stated, "today's ruling recognizes that gun ownership is a fundamental right — sacred, just as the right to free speech and assembly."

Obama said the Supreme Court ruling affirmed what he had been saying all along.

"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. The Supreme Court has now endorsed that view, and while it ruled that the D.C. gun ban went too far, Justice Scalia himself acknowledged that this right is not absolute and subject to reasonable regulations enacted by local communities to keep their streets safe. Today's ruling, the first clear statement on this issue in 127 years, will provide much-needed guidance to local jurisdictions across the country."

The McCain campaign responded by accusing Obama of waffling on the issue.

"Throughout his time in elected office, Barack Obama has taken multiple positions on banning handguns and the D.C. handgun ban. He has stated his belief that handgun bans were constitutional and he supported them. Then he actually refused to state a position."

Silent on the D.C. ban

In the months leading up to the Supreme Court decision, Obama did, in fact, skirt the issue of whether he thought the D.C. gun ban was constitutional. He repeatedly said he believed the Second Amendment protected an individual's right to bear arms, but that it does not preclude local governments from enacting "common sense" laws to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and children.

The main issue before the Supreme Court was whether the Second Amendment protected an individual's right to possess a firearm, or whether it only protected possession of a firearms connected to service in a militia.

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that it was an individual right.

Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Center and Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, says the Supreme Court ended up right where Obama was.

"Obama has said pretty consistently that he felt the Second Amendment provided an individual right to own a gun," he said.

McCain's case against Obama

But the McCain campaign said Obama has waffled, that he has supported the D.C. gun ban in the past. They provide three main pieces of evidence:

• The first is a 1996 voter questionnaire Obama completed while running for a seat in the Illinois Senate. The "Independent Voters of Illinois" asked if the candidate supported state legislation to "ban the manufacture, sale and possession of handguns." Obama's answer: "Yes."

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The 1996 voter form surfaced again last year. The Obama campaign claimed the questionnaire was filled out by a campaign aide who "unintentionally mischaracterize[d] his position." The Web site investigated and found that while Obama's campaign claimed Obama never saw or approved the responses in the questionnaire, the campaign at the time filed an amended version, which appeared to include Obama's own handwritten notes added to one answer (not the one on gun control).

Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for Obama's campaign, said in an e-mailed statement to Politico, "He may have jotted some notes on the front page of the questionnaire at the meeting, but that doesn't change the fact that some answers didn't reflect his views."

• The second alleged contradiction comes from a Chicago Tribune article on Nov. 20, 2007, in which the Obama campaign is quoted as saying Obama "believes that we can recognize and respect the rights of law-abiding gun owners and the right of local communities to enact common sense laws to combat violence and save lives. Obama believes the D.C. handgun law is constitutional."

The statement, which came from an unnamed campaign aide, "was obviously an inartful attempt to explain the senator's consistent position," Obama spokesman Bill Burton told ABC News.

• Lastly, the McCain campaign notes that in a forum sponsored by WJLA-ABC7 and on Feb. 12, 2008, Obama did not dispute a questioner's characterization of Obama's position as supporting the D.C. handgun ban.

Here's the text of the exchange:

Leon Harris of WJLA: "One other issue that is of great importance to the people of the district here, is gun control. You said in Idaho here, recently, that "I have no intention of taking away folks' guns." But you support the D.C. handgun ban, and you've said that it's constitutional. How do you reconcile those two positions?"

Obama responded, "Because I think we have two conflicting traditions in this country. I think it's important for us to recognize that we've got a tradition of handgun ownership and gun ownership generally. And a lot of people — law-abiding citizens use it for hunting, for sportsmanship, and for protecting their families. We also have a violence on the streets that is the result of illegal handgun usage. And so I think there is nothing wrong with a community saying, we are going to take those illegal handguns off the streets, we are going to trace more effectively how these guns are ending up on the streets, to unscrupulous gun dealers, who often times are selling to straw purchasers, and cracking down on the various loopholes that exist in terms of background checks for children, the mentally ill. ...We can have reasonable, thoughtful gun control measures that I think respect the Second Amendment and people's traditions."

A look at the votes

The National Rifle Association isn't buying Obama's "election-year rhetoric" in support of individuals' right to keep and bear arms.

The NRA says Obama's voting record — which they have consistently rated an "F" — suggests he would be "a serious threat to Second Amendment liberties."

Here's some of Obama's voting record:

As a state senator in Illinois in 2004, Obama voted against a measure to lower the minimum age to apply for a Firearm Owner's Identification Card from 21 to 18. That same year, an Illinois state senator proposed giving people who violate city gun bans the right to use self-defense as a legal argument if they were charged for violating a ban. Obama opposed the measure.

As a U.S. senator, Obama voted in July 2005 against a bill to prohibit civil lawsuits against gun manufacturers or dealers resulting from the misuse of their products. The NRA contended the bill was designed to bankrupt the firearms industry. McCain voted in favor of the prohibition, which passed 65-31.

Obama also voted for an amendment to expand the definition of prohibited, armor-piercing ammunition. The NRA claimed it would have banned much of the rifle ammunition commonly used for hunting. McCain voted against it and it failed.

Both Obama and McCain voted in favor of a requirement that manufacturers and importers of handguns provide child safety locks.

In 2006, both Obama and McCain voted for an amendment to prohibit the confiscation of a lawfully owned firearm during an emergency or major disaster.

According to Obama's campaign Web site, Obama supports making the expired federal assault weapons ban permanent, "as such weapons belong on foreign battlefields and not on our streets."

On the fence

So here's what we have to support the claim of an Obama flip-flop: one answer to a questionnaire in 1996 that Obama claims was completed in error by a staffer; a quote attributed to a campaign aide in 2007, also later disavowed by Obama; and failing to dispute the characterization of his position in a campaign forum in February.

It's a bit too convenient for the Obama campaign to dismiss a record it doesn't like by claiming that twice in his career aides misstated his position on gun control. At the end of the day, voters simply have to decide if they believe Obama's explanation or they don't.

Finally, there's the question in the forum in which Obama's position was characterized as supporting the D.C. gun ban, and that it was constitutional.

Obama's answer seemed like an attempt to cling to his position atop the fence, repeating his belief that the Second Amendment affirms an individual's right to own a gun, but that local governments ought to be able to limit that right.

But what about D.C.'s outright ban of guns? Obama not only didn't correct Harris' characterization of support for the D.C. gun ban, his answer seemed to affirm that it was accurate. At the very least, if Harris was wrong, here was the perfect opportunity to set the record straight.

By and large, Obama's fence-sitting has been pretty consistent. Still, twice claiming an aide botched your position and failing to go on record even when directly asked about it gives the flip-flopping charge enough ammo to merit a Half True.

Our Sources

Illinois General Assembly, "Bill Status of SB2165 93rd General Assembly," May 13, 2004

Illinois general Assembly, "Bill Status of SB2163 93rd General Assembly," March 25, 2004

Politico, "Obama had greater role on liberal survey," by Kenneth P. Vogel, March 31, 2008

AP, "Gun ruling reverberates in presidential campaign," by Liz Sidoti, June 26, 2008

Obama Campaign Web Site, "Urban Policy: Crime and Law Enforcement"

Obama Campaign Web Site, "Know the Facts: Guns"

McCain Campaign Web Site, "Protecting Second Amendment Rights"

The Weekly Standard, "Saint Barack of Iowa," by Stephen F. Hayes, Dec. 17, 2007

NRA Institute for Legislative Action, "On the Second Amendment, Don't Believe Obama!"

U.S. Senate, "Senate Amendment 1615 to S. 397: To expand the definition of armor piercing ammunition and for other purposes."

U.S. Senate, "S. 397: A bill to prohibit civil liability actions from being brought or continued against manufacturers, distributors, dealers, or importers of firearms or ammunition for damages, injunctive or other relief resulting from the misuse of their products by others."

ABC News, "Obama: 'Common Sense Regulation' on Gun Owners' Rights," by David Wright, Ursula Fahy and Sunlen Miller, Feb. 15, 2008

ABC News, "Video: Obama Plays It Safe on Issue of Guns," Feb. 15, 2008

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, "Candidates' gun control positions may figure in Pa. vote," by Mike Wereschagin and David M. Brown, April 2, 2008

Radio Iowa, "Clinton, Edwards, Obama on gun control," April 22, 2001

U.S. News & World Report, "John McCain Still Backs Closing Gun Show Loophole," by Paul Bedard, May 15, 2008

Supreme Court of the United States, "District of Columbia Et Al. v. Heller," June 26, 2008

ABC News, Obama Camp Disavows Last Year's Inartful Statement on D.C. Gun Law, by Teddy Davis and Alexa Ainsworth, June 26, 2008

Politico, Full Text: Obama interview, by David Mark, Feb. 11, 2008

U.S. Senate, "Senate Amendment 4615 to H.R. 5441: To prohibit the confiscation of a firearm during an emergency or major disaster if the possession of such firearm is not prohibited under Federal or State law," July 13, 2006

U.S. Senate, "Amendment 1626 to S. 397: To amend chapter 44 of title 18, United States Code, to require the provision of a child safety lock in connection with the transfer of a handgun," July 28, 2005

NRA, "Amicus Brief from 55 Members of the U.S. Senate, the President of the U.S. and 250 Members of the U.S. House of Representatives"

Interview with Rachel Parsons, a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association, July 2, 2008

Interview with Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Center and Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, July 2, 2008

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