WASHINGTON - John McCain welcomed a Supreme Court decision invalidating a District of Columbia handgun ban. Barack Obama sought to straddle the subject by saying he favors an individual's right to bear firearms as well as a government's right to regulate them.
The hotly contentious issue surfaced in the presidential campaign Thursday after the Supreme Court ruled that Americans have a constitutional right to own guns and struck down the 32-year-old D.C. ban.
McCain, the Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting, heralded the justices' action as "a landmark victory for Second Amendment freedom."
Voicing a stance that could help him woo conservatives and libertarians, McCain said, "This ruling does not mark the end of our struggle against those who seek to limit the rights of law-abiding citizens. We must always remain vigilant in defense of our freedoms."
His Democratic rival, Obama, issued a more carefully worded statement apparently aimed at both moderate voters and his liberal base. The statement from Obama, who has long said local governments should be able to regulate guns, did not specifically say whether Obama agreed with overturning the specific D.C. ban. But he said Thursday's ruling "will provide much-needed guidance to local jurisdictions across the country."
"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 commonsense, effective safety measures," Obama said.
Obama said his view was supported by the court's ruling that the Constitution does not permit "the absolute prohibition of handguns." That language "reinforces that if we act responsibly, we can both protect the constitutional right to bear arms and keep our communities and our children safe," Obama said.
Both presidential candidates endorse an individual's right to bear arms. But they strongly differ beyond that. McCain has had a mostly conservative record on the issue; Obama, a mostly liberal record.
Other than a few departures, McCain is largely in line with the National Rifle Association's hardline support for gun rights. He voted against a ban on assault-style weapons and for shielding gun-makers and dealers from civil damage suits. But he broke with the NRA to favor requiring background checks at gun shows and has taken heat for pushing through campaign finance legislation that gun-rights advocates say muzzled their free speech.
Obama has voted to leave gun-makers and dealers open to lawsuits. He also took largely liberal positions on gun laws while in the Illinois legislature, including backing a ban on all forms of semiautomatic weapons and tighter state restrictions generally on firearms.
Campaigning in Cincinnati, McCain claimed Obama has reversed course on the issue. Obama told FOX Business Network that he's been consistent.
The Democrat's campaign said a spokesman made an "inartful" statement when he said in November that Obama believed the D.C. law was constitutional. But Obama himself did not correct a debate moderator who repeated the position in February.
"You said in Idaho recently, I'm quoting here, '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," said the moderator, Leon Harris of Washington television station WJLA. Obama nodded as Harris spoke, nodding and saying, "Right, right."
"How can you reconcile those two different positions?" Harris asked.
Obama answered that the United States has conflicting traditions of gun ownership and street violence that results from illegal handgun use. "So, there is nothing wrong, I think, with a community saying we are going to take those illegal handguns off the streets," Obama said.
The Obama campaign argued that Obama was simply acknowledging the question by saying "right."
In other instances, Obama refused to articulate a position when asked whether he thought the D.C. ban was constitutional.
The campaign would not answer directly Thursday when asked whether the candidate agreed with the court that the D.C. ban was unconstitutional, simply pointing back to his statement.