By Endorsing Ted Strickland, Obama Broke his Promise on Gun Control

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When President Barack Obama announced executive action on gun control and committed to endorsing only candidates who believe in “common sense gun control,” I was thrilled. At the time, he boldly claimed in the New York Times, “I will not campaign for, vote for or support any candidate, even in my own party, who does not support common-sense gun reform.”

Many progressives, upon reading the article, believed that they finally had a gun control champion. But recently I felt my hope ebb, for Obama seems to have broken his promise by endorsing former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland in the Democratic primary for Ohio’s U.S. Senate seat.

In Ohio, two Democrats are vying to take on current Republican Senator Rob Portman in November. One of those candidates recently polled in the primary with a 50-point lead; that would be the former governor, Strickland. The other candidate is 31-year-old Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld (Princeton Class of ’07). If elected, Sittenfeld would be the youngest U.S. senator in office, and the first senator of the millennial generation.

After the Ohio Democratic Party preemptively endorsed Strickland last April, Sittenfeld continued to fight, and even led his opponent in fundraising that quarter. Sittenfeld’s biggest issue, tellingly, is gun control – standing up to the National Rifle Association. And though he frequently calls Strickland out for his fervently anti-gun control history, the former governor nevertheless received the White House endorsement.

Politicians do change their minds, but during Strickland’s time in Congress and time as governor of Ohio, he voted against the ban on semi-automatic rifles, supported Ohio’s concealed carry law, and voted to “repeal all bans and measures that restrict law-abiding citizens from owning legally-obtained firearms.” (emphasis mine) According to Northeast Ohio Media Group columnist Brent Larkin, during Strickland’s 20-year career in elected office, he “opposed every single measure that would reasonably restrict access to guns,” and from 1994 to 2010 which includes his gubernatorial tenure, Strickland invariably received an A rating from the NRA.

That’s a pretty entrenched record to just “flip-flop” on.

After reading Obama’s op-ed in the Times and seeing him break down on national television, I believed that Obama would really fight for this issue. That he would make it a central tenet to his legacy and his last few months in office. Obama’s op-ed and executive actions are impressive commitments to common sense gun reform. This endorsement is not.

Though Strickland bragged about his A+ rating from the NRA as recently as last March, he argues that he has since changed his mind – that’s why Obama felt he could endorse him. But Strickland did not bring stricter gun control laws to Ohio as governor, so it would be hardly surprising if he continued to vote for them as a senator. We as an electorate can’t let gun violence persist – we need members in Congress to categorically condemn such violence by enacting “common sense gun reform” legislation.

Political stances do change, and Strickland argues that his has. However, I think that Obama should stand by a statement as explicit as the one in his op-ed – without exceptions for mid-campaign flip-flops. With control of the Senate now of particular importance due to Justice Antonin Scalia’s recent death, Democrats really need to win control of the Senate. Confirming or blocking the president’s Supreme Court nominees is of utmost importance – and a Senate majority enables that. But endorsing Sittenfeld does not mean a definite loss of a Democratic seat, according to some pundits. Why risk endorsing possible NRA-supporter Strickland when there’s a suitable candidate who believes in strong, common-sense gun control?

Gun control is a clearly divisive issue, particularly in a swing state like Ohio where not everyone supports even Obama’s “common-sense gun reform.” But Sittenfeld has made gun control a central issue to his campaign and in doing so, made the primary competitive. This continued emphasis on the issue has helped Sittenfeld earn strategic endorsements from former Gov. Dick Celeste, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Akron Beacon Journal. The Journal wrote that “What distinguishes Sittenfeld is his greater awareness and grasp of how the gun question fits into the larger picture of race relations, policing and urban life.”

After Obama’s endorsement, communications director for Sittenfeld’s candidacy Dale Butland released a statement clearly contending that Obama’s move was reactionary.

“It’s no surprise that the Democratic establishment – which has long been in Gov. Strickland’s corner – would be getting mighty nervous about the momentum that’s been building around PG’s campaign,” he said in the statement. “But no endorsement—no matter who it comes from—can change Ted’s A+ rating from the NRA—or the fact that he voted against background checks, a ban on assault weapons, and every other common sense gun safety measure that was ever put in front of him.”

It’s shameful that even on an issue that claims so many lives, Democrats can’t be a team. It’s not even a highly contested issue – most Americans supported stricter gun control laws in October 2015.  As many as 85 percent of gun owners support universal background checks. Most Americans – even Democrats – believe in the Second Amendment and everything it stands for – namely individual rights in the face of a powerful federal government. That said, stricter gun control does not curtail the freedom of law-abiding Americans to own and use guns. Instead, it ensures the safety of gun owners and non-gun owners alike.

Ted Strickland may have “changed his views” after the Sandy Hook murders, but he has yet to demonstrate a commitment to concrete reforms beyond campaign promises. P.G. Sittenfeld has that commitment, and shows it through a lucid understanding of what’s at stake without stricter gun control laws.

By endorsing Ted Strickland – even though he may seem like the more realistic choice in areas like polling numbers – President Obama made his promise to the American people subject to polling numbers. Strickland may offer his prayers of comfort to the victims of gun violence, but in the past he has not offered his vote. Assuming that Strickland will vote this way once elected is an unacceptable risk for Ohioans to take, and for this primary voter, it will mean a vote for Sittenfeld.

 

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