Gun Lobby's Blast at Sotomayor Badly Aimed

Washington Matters

Gun Lobby's Blast at Sotomayor Badly Aimed

The National Rifle Association, in its push to defend the right to bear arms -- any arms, anywhere -- rules Congress with an iron fist. The number of members willing to defy the NRA seems to get smaller every year, especially since some Democrats concluded that Al Gore's modest support of gun control contributed to his loss to George Bush in 2000. Already this year, gun advocates scored a big victory in winning the right to carry concealed firearms in national parks. Buoyed by their success on that and other fronts, gun advocates are now going after Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama's Supreme Court nominee.  

Now some non-cable show truth exploration. The gun criticism of Sotomayor is based on one decision earlier this year in which she joined two other Circuit Court judges in declaring that the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms limits only the federal government, not the states. In doing so, the panel pointed to a precedent set by an 1886 Supreme Court decision and said it was up to the Supreme Court to decide if it wanted to change that precedent. The high court specifically declined to address the issue last year when it ruled, 5-4, that a Washington, D.C. gun control law went too far in abridging individual rights.

Sotomayor's defenders describe her decision as cautious and limited, relying on precedent and deferring to the higher court, rather than attempting to be activist. Several independent experts (such as Harvard Law Professor Martha Minow) agree, but critics have jumped on the decision, saying it proves she is anti-gun. They also note that the San Francisco based 9th Circuit, one of the most liberal in the U.S., took the opposite view, though just last week, a panel of conservatives on the 7th Circuit reached the same conclusion as Sotomayor. Because of the contradictory Appeals Court decisions, the Supreme Court is sure to be called in to make a final ruling.  

The gun lobby is now in an all-out push to get members of the Senate to oppose Sotomayor and is threatening to make the vote a "key vote," meaning one that will affect a senator's "rating" on gun issues. That can be a powerful weapon in a close election, making the difference between raising gobs of money from people fearful of losing their guns and having to waste valuable campaign time arguing that the Sotomayor vote has nothing to do with guns.


Apart from its implications for 2nd Amendment rights, the battle will be another test of power for the gun lobby. There's no question that the venerable and storied lobby has the power to make a difference in Congress, but there is a looming question as to how wisely that power is being used or abused in the sacrosanct language and never refined area of this most-debated Amendment. The debate wont end this summer.