Will Palin Choice Make Guns an Election Issue?

Like many Alaskans, Gov. Sarah Palin is a lifelong hunter and strong proponent of Second Amendment rights. A longtime member of the National Rifle Association, she told USA Today when she was running for governor as a Republican in 2006 that "We hunt as much as we can, and I'm proud to say our freezer is full of wild game we harvested here in Alaska." Her own parents had just returned from hunting caribou when they learned that she had been tapped as Sen. John McCain's running mate.

Most Alaskans wouldn't bat an eye at such a lifestyle. (Palin's favorite food? "Moose stew after a day of snowmachining," she told Vogue.) But in selecting a pro-gun female running mate who can probably skin and process a deer, Sen. John McCain may be inviting a debate on gun control into the campaign—and he could be seen as extending an olive branch to the wary right wing of his party: a recent independently-produced video clip by a Palin supporter included footage of her firing an assault rifle with Alaska National Guard soldiers. Such imagery stands in contrast to Sen. Barack Obama, who, in accepting the Democratic Party's nomination yesterday, said assault weapons pose a threat to city's streets. "The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than they are for those plagued by gang violence in Cleveland," he said, "but don't tell me we can't uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals."

Palin publicly applauded the Supreme Court's recent 5-4 ruling in District of Columbia vs. Heller that struck down the District's 32-year-old ban on handguns. Obama hedged, stating that he "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 common-sense, effective safety measures." His supporters describe Obama's stance on guns as nuanced; opponents call it deliberately vague. Eugene Volokh, a legal commentator and UCLA law professor, described Palin's stance as "very mainstream, while Obama has been cagier."

"The lines are being more clearly drawn on the gun issue," says Dennis Hennigan of the Brady Center, a gun-reform lobby group. "One day after Senator Obama made it clear that he thinks assault weapons should be banned in a remarkable portion of his speech, here Senator McCain selects someone who is not only proud to be endorsed by [the NRA], an opponent of that ban, but apparently is pretty enthusiastic about the guns themselves." Perhaps. But Palin has a long history of supporting gun-safety education for kids and nobody would expect her to be thrilled by the prospect of AK-47s flooding the streets of Anchorage. "Of course, we want to keep any firearm out of the hands of gang members and felons and drug dealers," says NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre. "But there is no way that Senator Obama can make a claim to be a supporter of the Second Amendment based on his voting record. Governor Palin understands the values of the American public on these types of issues."

Gun ownership in Alaska has little to nothing to do with gangs and everything to do with hunting, which comes with its own array of complicated issues. In 2003, residents in the interior of the state began complaining to state game officials that wild wolves and bears were eating too many moose calves, depleting the stock for hunters (who also presumably love a hot dish of moose stew). Over the past five years the state has intensified its "predator control" program, which reduces the numbers of wolves and bears in the wild in order to inflate the populations of moose, caribou, sheep, deer and other ungulates. Statewide, an average of 1,000 to 1,500 wolves are taken through hunting and trapping each year. Of that total, about 120 to 150 are "harvested" through the predator-control policies, according to Doug Larsen, director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation Department of Fish and Game. In a handful of regions, as many as 60 to 80 percent of the wolf population is targeted.

The practice of deliberately exterminating animals to manipulate the populations of other species is not without controversy. "Palin is on a massive extermination program for wolves across large swaths of Alaska to artificially inflate caribou and moose populations to pacify trophy hunters," says John Toppenberg, the executive director of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance. "It's totally illogical, it's extreme, it's the draconian manipulation of bears and wolves in Alaska." But it is a practice that predates Palin's governorship and remains popular with a majority of Alaskans.

"Her approach to environmental issues generally reflects someone who has grown up and depended upon natural resources, and has the perspective that resources should be used and used responsibly," says Jonathan Adler, director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. "You don't want to reduce the wolf population too much, or it will drop below a sustainable level. There is a certain amount of uncertainty in the field on how to do that. But the consensus is that the folks in Alaska tend to know what they're doing." And as one of their ilk, Palin may be giving Democrats some pause on the eve of the Republican convention. The hunter has them in her sights.