April 11, 2007 6:00 AM

Romney, a Second Amendment Killer?
Bill Richardson for president!?

By Dave Kopel

From the viewpoint of a Second Amendment supporter, it doesn’t matter whether Mitt Romney is an expert varmint stalker. It does matter whether he is sincere in his support of the Second Amendment. His stories last week about his lifetime of hunting give reason to doubt that President Romney would be a reliable defender of gun-owner rights.

Last week, Romney declared, “I've been a hunter pretty much all my life.” Asked for details, his staff said that he had only been hunting twice — once when he was fifteen, and last year, on an excursion for major donors to the National Republican Governors’ Association. On Thursday, he said that his staff was wrong: “I’ve hunted small game numerous times, as a young man and as an adult. I'm by no means a big game hunter. I’m more Jed Clampett than Teddy Roosevelt.”

No state in which Romney has lived shows any record of him having ever possessed a hunting license. However, hunting licenses in Utah are not public records, and in some states, a hunting license is not necessary for some types of small game and/or for hunting on private land.

According to the Associated Press, “His staff refused Friday to provide details about his hunting history, including whose gun he used, with whom he hunted and whether he hunted in Utah as a college student or as an adult. He does not own a firearm, despite claiming to earlier this year.”

As a Second Amendment supporter, I don’t care about Romney’s hunting history. I’ve never hunted, nor has Don Kates, who is one of the most influential pro-Second Amendment scholars ever. I know plenty of outstanding pro-rights legislators and activists who have never hunted, or who haven’t been hunting for many years. 

When Second Amendment supporters vote, they know that they’re choosing a political official, not a game warden. If we voted based on hunting prowess, we would have voted for John Kerry, who — besides going on a some hunting publicity trips during the campaign — also went trap shooting in Wisconsin and proved that he is skilled with a shotgun.

While Kerry claimed to be a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment, his Senate record showed that he voted against gun-owner rights 95 percent of the time. 

ROMNEY’S RECORD
Similarly, this year’s presidential candidate from Massachusetts has a thin record to back up his claims of support for the Second Amendment. On his website, you can find two accomplishments:

First, in 2004 he signed a bill which reformed some aspects of the extremely severe and arbitrary gun-licensing system in Massachusetts. This would be an impressive accomplishment if that were all the bill did. But the bill also made the Massachusetts ban on “assault weapons” permanent. (The previous ban was parasitic on the federal ban, which expired in September 2004.) The bill that Romney signed was a compromise bill, approved by both sides in the Massachusetts gun-control debate and widely supported by both parties in the legislature. The NRA considered the bill to be a net gain, but it’s hardly the unalloyed, pro-rights success that Romney now claims. As governor, Romney declared his support for banning so-called “assault weapons.”

The other accomplishment noted on the website was Romney’s signing of a 2005 bill that improved some technical details for hunting with muzzle-loading guns. 

The Gun Owners Action League of Massachusetts lists the following improvement in state laws which took place during Romney’s tenure (in addition to those noted above): 
2002 “…extends range protection to clubs that must move their ranges to comply with state or local laws.”
2003 “…restores the Inland Fish and Game Fund.”
   
2005 “Governor Romney issued a proclamation declaring May 7, 2005 as ‘Right to Bear Arms Day’.”
“Governor Romney suspended ‘administrative fees’ to the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Fund.”
“Chapter 45 of 2005 allowed the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife to access an additional $1,000,000 of the Inland Fisheries and Game Fund.”
“...a regulation to provide free replacement licenses.”
2006 Chapter 137 - The Hunter Education Bill. This bill restored a requirement that all new hunters pass a hunter safety course. (The old requirement had lapsed.)

Chapter 177. (See House, No. 4552, amended). A Massachusetts law, enacted in 1998, requires that any model of handgun which is sold in the state must undergo a procedure which includes the testing of five guns “until destruction.” The provision was especially burdensome for makers of small quantities of very expensive target pistols, since five guns was a not insubstantial fraction of the total guns sold in a given year. The bill relaxed the destruction requirement for ultra-elite target pistols.

Other than the 2005 proclamation, there is little evidence of executive leadership by Romney on Second Amendment rights; rather, he tended merely to accept reform bills which could pass even the Massachusetts legislature.

But Romney occasionally considered the Democratic-dominated Massachusetts legislature too soft on gun owners. In the summer of 2002, the Massachusetts house overwhelmingly passed a bill to relax the state’s lifetime ban on gun ownership for persons convicted of some misdemeanors. Faced with a bill that had passed the left-leaning House by a huge margin, Governor Romney declared his opposition, while allowing that he would back a much “more narrow proposal” (Boston Globe, July 17, 2002, page B4). (The narrower proposal was eventually included in the 2004 bill which he did sign.)

Running for re-election in 2002, he bragged, “We do have tough gun laws in Massachusetts. I support them. I won’t chip away at them. I believe they protect us and provide for our safety.” At the least, Romney generally didn’t show leadership in making Massachusetts’ terrible gun-laws even worse. For example, his 2002 anti-crime plan included no new gun control (Boston Herald, August 21, 2002).

Romney’s website brags about how he balanced the Massachusetts budget “without raising taxes.” That depends on what the meaning of “taxes” is. Unmentioned on the Romney website is how he dealt with a state budget gap:  namely, by quadrupling the fee for a Firearms Identification card (FID) to $100. Without a FID in Massachusetts, you are a felon if you possess a single bullet, even if you don’t own a gun. The FID card is required even to possess defensive pepper spray. Thus, an impoverished woman who wanted to buy a $15 can of pepper spray was forced by Romney to spend $100 for the privilege of defending her own life (NorthShore Sunday News, August 8, 2003).

This year, Romney has been portraying himself as a staunch Second Amendment advocate. But when he was interviewed by Glenn and Helen Reynolds, he displayed little understanding of the Second Amendment and had difficulty articulation anything more than platitudes and slogans.

THE WORDMAN CONFUSED
Newt Gingrich is another putative Republican nominee whose views on the Second Amendment are worrisome. On the Hugh Hewitt show, he endorsed banning some guns and showed that he doesn’t know much about them:

HH:..Do you support allowing individuals to own those weapons labeled assault weapons under that law?

NG: Well, if you remember, there are a number of weapons under that law that are not assault weapons, and the law the way it was written in the Clinton administration is an absurdity. And I think people proved that at the time. And I voted against the law, and in fact, I helped stop it at one point.

HH:…what weapons ought Americans not be allowed to own under the 2nd Amendment?

NG: Look, I think we ought to draw a clear distinction about a whole range of weapons that are explicitly military, and I have no interest in arguing or defending the right of people to randomly hold weapons that are that extraordinary, except under very, very unique circumstances.

HH: All right, so basically, return the right for some of these higher caliber weapons, but keep the military weapons away from…

NG: Right. I just think, you know, if you said to me would I feel comfortable if my next door neighbor had a 50 caliber machine gun, I would say no.

Gingrich revealed that he gets too much of his information from sources which repeat disinformation from the gun prohibition lobby. Since 1986, the manufacture of new machine guns for people who are not police or military has been prohibited by federal law. Accordingly, the only .50 caliber machine guns which an ordinary citizen can buy are World War II antiques. They are very rare, and would likely cost a collector over $20,000. 

HUCKABEE GETS IT
Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee also appeared on Hewitt’s show and displayed a more tolerant attitude, showing that he knows guns and understands the Second Amendment in a way that Romney and Gingrich plainly do not:

HH:…What about assault weapons, or what is called assault weapons in the law? Should Americans be allowed to have them?

MH: Absolutely. Americans ought to be allowed to have anything they want to have, as long as they’re law abiding, legal citizens. The 2nd Amendment was not there for hunting. I get so offended when Democrats talk about it as if you don’t need an assault weapon to hunt. Well truthfully, most Democrats wouldn’t know an assault weapon from a BB gun. I’m a hunter, I have been my whole life. But the 2nd Amendment is not just about hunting. It’s about protecting your family, your property, and it’s honestly about defending ourselves against a tyrannical government, should it ever go haywire on us.

HH: What about machine guns, Governor?

MH: I’ve got friends who own them. They have the legal process to own them. But once again, I’m not afraid of a law abiding citizen owning anything. I’m afraid of a criminal getting his hands on a gun. That’s where the crackdown needs to be. This country’s gone crazy. It’s cracking down on law abiding citizens, and turning their heads at people who break the law. That’s the polar opposite.
Huckabee’s broadminded attitude is supported by the facts:  Pursuant to the National Firearms Act of 1934, the purchase of a machine gun requires a months-long process involving a background check and letter of authorization from local law enforcement (Form 4), plus fingerprinting, registration of the owner and the gun, and a $200 tax. There has never been an instance of a legally-owned, registered machine gun being used in a violent crime, except for the lone case of one Ohio police officer’s misuse of a personally-owned gun.

An especially disturbing part of the Gingrich interview was his cagey language about the Clinton ban:  “there are a number of weapons under that law that are not assault weapons.” The statement is literally true, but it implies that some of the weapons under that law really are “assault weapons.” To the contrary, a real “assault weapon” is a type of military rifle which can fire automatically. None of the guns in the Clinton ban were automatics, and the gun prohibitionists’ push for “assault weapon” bans has nothing to do with real assault weapons. 

All of the covered guns functioned just like other firearms: if you press the trigger, the gun will fire one, and only one, bullet. The guns were banned only because they were cosmetically incorrect; they have a military or futuristic appearance, which makes some people who are ignorant about guns (e.g., Gingrich) imagine that they function like military guns.

And while Gingrich replied “Right” to the proposition that some high caliber guns ought to be banned and some others allowed, so-called “assault weapons” are not “high caliber” guns; the guns banned by Clinton were intermediate caliber.

Bob Dole, after years of good work on behalf of the Second Amendment in Congress, threw away the opportunity to be endorsed by the NRA in 1996 when he endorsed banning so-called “assault weapons.” Newt Gingrich has taken a step in the same direction.

UNRELIABLE FRIENDS OF CONVENIENCE
Mitt Romney’s attitudes on guns — like his double flip-flop on abortion — appear to have more to do with political expediency than with conviction. While an expedient and cynical “friend” like Mitt Romney would probably be better for gun owners than would a sincere and fierce enemy like Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, it is still worth wondering what President Romney would do if his political calculus changed yet again. 

George H. W. Bush was another gun-rights friend of convenience, who (like Romney) bought himself a lifetime NRA membership shortly before running for president. And when circumstances made it convenient for Bush to become a gun-control advocate instead of a Second Amendment defender (only a few weeks after he took the oath of office and swore to defend the Constitution), Bush switched sides, and spent the remainder of his administration promoting restrictions on the Second Amendment.

Ever since “the revolt at Cincinnati” — the 1977 NRA Convention when pro-rights members seized power from an Old Guard that wanted to get the NRA out of political advocacy — there has been an easy way to predict who will win the presidential election. If the Republican is endorsed by the NRA Political Victory Fund, he wins (Reagan 1980 and 1984, G.H.W. Bush 1988, G.W. Bush 2000, 2004). If the NRA does not endorse the Republican, he loses (G.H.W. Bush 1992, Dole 1996).

THE DEMOCRATIC OPTION
While most of the Democratic presidential aspirants are awful on the Second Amendment, the notable exception is New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. As a U.S. representative and as governor, he compiled an impeccable record. Unlike Governor Romney, Governor Richardson took a leading role in promoting pro-rights reforms. The most significant of Richardson’s successes was “shall issue” concealed-carry licensing, so that adults who pass a background check and a safety class can obtain a permit to carry a handgun for lawful protection. His record contrasts with that of former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, who signed a good bill which prohibited local gun bans, but who opposed “shall issue” and prevented it from becoming law in Wisconsin.

A blemish on Richardson’s gun rights record is his service as Bill Clinton’s Ambassador to the United Nations, when he failed to mount a strong opposition to the development of the international gun-control agenda — although it is doubtful that Richardson had any choice in the matter, given the Clinton administration’s fervent stance on the matter.

If the Republicans nominated Giuliani and the Democrats Richardson, the NRA would be crazy not to support Richardson with everything in its political arsenal. More generally, as theNew York Sun reported on April 5, “the thinking within the organization is that it would eagerly endorse a consistently pro-gun Democrat over a Republican who has been inconsistent in protecting Second Amendment rights.” Republican realists who want to win in 2008 would do well to start looking for candidates whose records demonstrate that they understand and will reliably defend the right to arms.