With presidential primaries just over two-and-a-half years away, John McCain is moving back towards Republican conservatives. On some issues, from campaign finance to illegal immigration to global warming, he isn’t even trying to convince conservatives that he agrees with them. But he realizes he can’t oppose them on everything. So, on other important issues, such as taxes, abortion, and guns, he’s brandishing his conservative credentials.
It is quite a contrast to his 2000 presidential campaign, when he openly criticized and needled conservatives. This last Saturday, he even gave a graduation talk at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University (though, for balance, he will also be addressing this week graduates at New York City’s very left-wing New School).
Reporters speculated on Meet the Press on Sunday that McCain wants to make amends with conservatives well before he officially announces his candidacy for president next year. So can he convince people he is still sufficiently conservative?
Let’s consider just one of these issues: McCain’s claimed pro-gun record. This was true a decade ago, but since then, on issues such as regulating gun shows, banning less expensive guns and so-called assault weapons, and requiring gunlocks, McCain has supported central portions of the gun-control agenda. Indeed, in a couple cases, McCain authored the proposed legislation himself.
McCain’s gun show regulations, instead of simply requiring background checks on sales at gun shows, would make it extremely difficult for gun shows even to function. A special license would be required to operate gun shows. Licenses could be denied without the federal government even having to give a reason, and no time limits would be placed on how long the government had to make its decisions.
While gun-control groups have tried for years to register the names of gun owners, McCain’s legislation helps accomplish this by effectively requiring the registration of all people who attend a gun show. Gun show operators would even face criminal penalties and imprisonment if any unregistered attendees were to trade a gun after the show subsequent to discussing the gun during the show. The only option to operators would thus be to register everyone.
McCain acknowledges that these regulations could be abused, but, according to him, the goals are too important to compromise, and McCain assures us that we should trust the regulators. Yet, it was not so long ago that the Clinton administration constantly halted gun sales nationwide as background checks broke down and kept records long after the law explicitly allowed.
Most troubling are McCain’s extreme measures for what is essentially a non-existent problem. The Bureau of Justice Statistics under Clinton conducted a survey of 18,000 state prison inmates in 1997—the largest survey of inmates ever conducted. Less than one percent of inmates (0.7 percent) who had a gun obtained it from a gun show. The vast majority of criminals—40 percent—say they got their guns either from friends or family, and 39 percent got it on the street or from other illegal sources.
Of course, like with many gun-control regulations, the call for more regulations rests on distortions. Despite the “gun show loophole” term used by McCain and others, there are no special exemptions for buying a gun at a gun show. Dealers must perform the same background checks as in a store. What gun-control groups refer to is the non-regulated private transfer of guns. Eighteen states regulate the private transfer of handguns, with some having regulations going back more than several decades. However, not surprisingly, just as with the semi-automatic gun bans, there is not a single academic study showing that these regulations reduce any type of violent crime.
McCain has also done advertisements on behalf of Americans for Gun Safety, a gun-control organization that supports licensing and registering every gun owner in the United States. He has used the ads to greatly exaggerate the risks of children getting access to guns in the home—a claim that is based upon a questionable survey—and asked that people lock up guns. With the threats he claims existed, few would know that in 2002, for example, the number of children under 10 who died from accidental gun shots was 20, and the number of children under 15 was 56. Obviously, one death is too many, but McCain has launched no similar campaign against other much more dangerous items in people’s homes.
No mention was ever made by McCain about using guns for self-defense or that gunlocks might make it difficult to stop intruders who break into your home. And research indicates that McCain’s push for gunlocks is far more likely to lead to more deaths than it saves.
Unfortunately, these are not the only misleading advertisements that McCain has made for Americans for Gun Safety. As David Kopel has pointed out, McCain has also made misleading advertisements on an array of other issues, such as the Brady Law and gun shows.
McCain has helped protect guns owners, such as supporting legislation to protect gun makers from reckless lawsuits, but for McCain to argue this week that he is reliably pro-gun relies on conservatives having very short memories. Possibly the threat of Hillary Clinton being president will convince conservatives to vote for McCain, should he win the nomination. But unless he denounces his past positions, it won’t be because they believe he is a “pro-gun” conservative.
—John R. Lott Jr. is the author of More Guns, Less Crime and The Bias Against Guns.