Meacham: Guns, Liquor and the Age of Obama

He remembers the gift fondly. When Phil Bredesen turned 16, he was given a .22 rifle by his father, who had bought the gun from James Natoli, one of Bredesen's teachers at Red Jacket Central High School in Manchester, N.Y.; the teacher operated a hunting-rifle and shotgun store out of the front room of his house in nearby Shortsville. In school the next year, Bredesen and his classmates took an NRA-sanctioned and -designed course in firearms handling and hunter safety taught by Mr. Natoli. "The thing I remember most," recalls Bredesen, now the Democratic governor of Tennessee, "was his constant harping on the 'guns and alcohol don't mix' message—and it was a good message for a bunch of 17-year-olds in a state with a then-18 drinking age."

Those lessons came back to Bredesen when he found himself confronted last week with a bill allowing people who are licensed to carry concealed weapons to bring them into bars and restaurants that serve liquor and beer. Standing before rows of law-enforcement officers that formed what he called, with the satisfied tone of a good politician, "a sea of blue," Bredesen vetoed the measure, though that veto is almost certainly going to be overridden in Nashville. Guns are among the most emotional issues in American politics; their appeal is deep and not easily dismissed. Firearms, especially handguns, invest their bearers with ultimate authority—and ultimate responsibility.

"There's been a whole raft of gun bills this year," Bredesen told me. He signed one that stripped his office of the power to confiscate guns in the event of martial law. ("The possibility of that coming to pass seemed awfully remote," he says.) Coming up soon: a bill to allow those with concealed-weapons permits to carry guns in state and city parks. Bredesen is undecided on this one: law-enforcement officials are against it, but not nearly in the same numbers or with the same passion as they opposed mixing guns and bars.

Bredesen's handling of the Tennessee gunfights—signing one bill, vetoing another, keeping his options open on still others—offers a window onto the surprisingly scattershot nature of gun policy in the age of Obama. NRA ads from 2008 predicting the end of all things in the event of a Democratic victory have the antique feel of a Mike Huckabee placard—the president, like the governor, is fully cognizant of the fact that pro-gun sentiment in America is rising, not falling. In April, the FBI reported its sixth straight month of increasing background checks for gun buyers (1,225,980; a 30 percent increase over April 2008), a trend that began in November. There are reports of ammunition shortages, and polling suggests softening public support for stricter gun laws. The president is attuned to these realities, signing a bill that contained an amendment allowing guns to be carried in national parks. The administration, meanwhile, has thus far declined to press for a renewal of the ban on assault weapons that lapsed in 2004. Democrats remember 1994 and 2000 the way the French remember the Maginot Line: as something to be avoided at any cost. Top Obama people have told my colleague Dan Klaidman that the administration's position on assault weapons is designed to protect Democrats in pro-gun states and districts—Democrats the White House needs on health care, energy and education.

For many Americans, guns are tangible symbols of independence and power; for many others, the attraction of firearms is mystifying. I grew up hunting birds in Tennessee (not well; a poor shot, I was an inadvertent one-boy PETA) and now live in New York, where most people I know react to talk of guns with widening eyes and puzzlement. Bredesen is trying to find a middle ground between those extremes, as is Obama. The reflexive liberal reaction is to deplore any compromise on guns, but Bredesen's musings on the issue bear consideration. "There seems to often be a presumption that the rational norm is a European-like careful regulation of guns, and that people who feel differently are a cultural phenomenon that needs explaining," the governor wrote me in an e-mail. "I would suggest that it is cultural on both sides: that strong anti-gun advocates can be just as culturally biased and irrational as the most avid gun-toters. I enjoy pointing out to my more liberal friends that when they want to (e.g. choice v. right to life issues) they can happily find justification for their (and my) position in rights emanating from implied privacy rights lurking in the penumbra of our Constitution, but where they disagree (e.g. on guns) they are perfectly happy to wave off or reinterpret the clear language in the Bill of Rights." He wrote these words near a gun cabinet that still holds his .22 from that distant birthday—a reminder, in a way, that if you are going to have a gun, you need a Mr. Natoli.