But before he became a national political figure, he sat on the board of a Chicago-based foundation that doled out at least nine grants totaling nearly $2.7 million to groups that advocated the opposite positions.
The foundation funded legal scholarship advancing the theory that the Second Amendment does not protect individual gun owners’ rights, as well as two groups that advocated handgun bans. And it paid to support a book called “Every Handgun Is Aimed at You: The Case for Banning Handguns.”
Obama’s eight years on the board of the Joyce Foundation, which paid him more than $70,000 in directors fees, do not in any way conflict with his campaign-trail support for the rights of gun owners, Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for Obama’s presidential campaign, asserted in a statement issued to Politico this week.
LaBolt stressed that the foundation, which has assets of about $935 million, doesn’t take “detailed policy positions,” but rather uses its grants to “fuel a dialogue about how to address public policy issues like reducing gun violence.”
As with most foundations, Joyce did not record how individual board members voted on grants, but former Joyce officials told Politico that funding was typically approved unanimously.
LaBolt said Obama, an Illinois senator, “does not remember each of the over 1,500 individual grant requests and his assessment of their merits, but he considered all requests in light of the foundation's goal of developing a robust public dialogue around reducing gun violence.”
Obama joined the board in the summer of 1994 as a 32-year-old lawyer who had yet to run for public office, but he already had a reputation in Chicago as an up-and-comer, particularly on issues related to low-income communities — a key foundation focus.
By the time he left the board in the winter of 2002, as he was gearing up for his 2004 U.S. Senate bid, Obama had served six years in the Illinois state Senate and had also considered leaving politics to become the group’s full-time president, by his own acknowledgment.
Obama's service on the board of the Joyce Foundation and a few other Chicago-based nonprofits including the Woods Fund of Chicago remains one of the least scrutinized parts of his career. But it’s one that could hamper his efforts to woo populations of rural pro-gun voters in Pennsylvania, which votes April 22, and in a general election match-up with the presumptive Republican nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain.
In his appeal to gun owners, Obama has not emphasized his own legislative record, which includes supporting a ban on semiautomatic weapons and concealed weapons, and a limit on handgun purchases to one a month. He has blamed his staff for indicating on a questionnaire filled out during his 1996 state Senate bid under his name that he supports banning “the manufacture, sale and possession of handguns.”
Obama, who taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago and served as president of the Harvard Law Review, has instead focused on his respect for what he contends are constitutionally guaranteed gun owners’ rights, the “passion” of hunters and the “tradition” of handgun ownership.
In February, he told an Idaho audience “I have no intention of taking away folks' guns.” Days later, when Politico asked him about the comment, he said, “It’s important for us to recognize that we’ve got a tradition of handgun ownership and gun ownership generally.”
Pressed to clarify his stance during a debate Wednesday evening in Philadelphia, Obama told ABC News anchor Charles Gibson, “I have never favored an all-out ban on handguns. What I think we an provide is common-sense approaches to the issue of illegal guns that are ending up on the streets.”
A white paper on his website states: “As a former constitutional law professor, Barack Obama … greatly respects the constitutional rights of Americans to bear arms” as well as “the passion that hunters and anglers have for their sport.” It says: “He will protect the rights of hunters and other law-abiding Americans to purchase, own, transport and use guns for the purposes of hunting and target shooting.”
And, in a memo to reporters this week defending Obama’s much-criticized assertion that down-on-their luck small-town voters “get bitter” and “cling to guns or religion” or isolationism, his campaign touted his position on guns and blasted New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s.
Obama supported a 2002 amendment to bar the use of federal homeland security funds to seize firearms during states of emergency, while the memo pointed out she opposed it. The memo adds: “Sen. Obama has consistently stated that the Second Amendment contains an individual right and has been consistent in his support of common-sense gun laws that do not abridge that right because it is a matter of defending the Constitution.”
But the Joyce Foundation in 1999 awarded $84,000 to the Chicago-Kent College of Law for a symposium on the theory that the Second Amendment does not protect an individual’s right to bear arms, but rather only a state’s right to arm its militia.
“No effort was made to include the individual right point of view,” its organizer, Carl T. Bogus, a Roger Williams University School of Law professor, wrote in one of several law review articles stemming from the symposium. “Full and robust public debate is not always best served by having all viewpoints represented in every symposium. Sometimes one point of view requires greater illumination.”
The Chicago-Kent Law Review edition that resulted from the symposium has been influential in Second Amendment jurisprudence. It was cited several times in a 2002 federal court decision upholding most of a tough California gun control law on the basis that the Constitution doesn’t protect individual gun owners’ rights. It was also cited in a 2001 federal court decision out of New Orleans that took the opposite view.
The Supreme Court denied review of both cases, but it will address the issue in a forthcoming decision in a closely watched case challenging the D.C. handgun ban.
Obama hasn’t taken a firm stand on the ban or on the case before the high court. “I confess I obviously haven't listened to the briefs and looked at all the evidence,” he told Gibson during Wednesday’s debate. “As a general principle, I believe that the Constitution confers an individual right to bear arms. But just because you have an individual right does not mean that the state or local government can't constrain the exercise of that right.”
During Obama’s time on the Joyce board, though, the foundation gave seven grants totaling more than $2.5 million to a group that wants Congress to take much more proactive action: the Violence Policy Center.
The D.C.-based nonprofit, which calls itself “the most aggressive group in the gun control movement,” for years has argued for a national handgun ban.
In a 2000 study called “Unsafe in Any Hands: Why America Needs to Ban Handguns,” the group concluded that Congress could and should ban handguns nationwide “soon” and allocate $16.25 billion to buy back the 65 million handguns it estimated were then owned by civilians.
The study dismissed as “pure myth” the theory that the Second Amendment bars such strict gun control laws.
The study was funded partly by the Joyce Foundation, said Josh Sugarmann, the center’s excutive director. “The Joyce Foundation gives us general support,” he said, though he added that the foundation’s continued funding of his group is primarily for efforts to study the public health effects of gun violence.
That appears to be the purpose of a majority of the 83 gun-violence grants totaling nearly $24 million approved by Joyce’s board from 1997 (the first year for which the foundation has posted its annual report online) through 2002.
But in 2000, the foundation also awarded a $20,000 grant to a publishing group to support Sugarmann’s book, “Every Handgun Is Aimed at You: The Case for Banning Handguns.”
And in 2002, Joyce gave $10,000 to a nonprofit group called Handgun-Free America. The purpose of the grant was “to support a student grass-roots gun violence prevention campaign.” But the organization billed itself as “dedicated to ending the handgun epidemic in America through the sensible act of banning private handgun ownership.”
Sugarmann’s group filed a brief with the Supreme Court supporting the D.C. handgun ban, while Bogus is the lawyer for a group of scholars who also filed an amicus brief taking D.C.’s side in the case. Still another amicus brief supporting the ban was signed by a half dozen anti-gun-violence groups to which Joyce gave 14 grants totaling $3.2 million while Obama was on the board. Joyce’s grants to the groups — Freedom States Alliance, Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, Iowans for the Prevention of Gun Violence, the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence and Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort — were mostly for state-based activities.
Though both Sugarmann and Bogus disagree with Obama’s interpretation of the Second Amendment, they also contend that Obama should not be held to account for grants made by Joyce.
“To think that every board member of a foundation is somehow responsible for not just every grant made but the end product displays a lack of understanding of the ways foundations operate and is unrealistic,” Sugarmann said.
It’s “absurd,” Bogus said. “Even in our hyperventilating world, it seems to me that there is nothing wrong with a board member of a particular charity voting to dispense funds to organizations that hold a different view than he happens to hold, at least in part.”
The Joyce Foundation’s board is comprised of a dozen people. Though it has included individuals active in both political parties, the foundation is strictly nonpartisan. At meetings, directors are expected to be prepared to discuss the contents of binders that sometimes contain hundreds of single-spaced, double-sided pages describing more than 100 grant proposals.
“Not every [grant] got discussed,” said Carin Clauss, a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School who served on the board with Obama. “Some were just: ‘Yeah, we don’t have any problem with that.’ The primary function of the board was to identify the public policy issues that were going to be the subject of grants.”
There was “typically consensus” on funding blocks of grants, recalled Deborah Leff, who was president of the foundation during most of Obama’s tenure. But she said “there were certainly times when grants were rejected. This was not rubber-stamped. This was a fairly thoughtful process.”
Clauss and Leff remember Obama being very well-prepared and engaged on all issues. But both recall Obama being most active on issues related to welfare reform and expanding employment and educational opportunities for low-income populations.
Neither Clauss nor Leff recollect Obama objecting to, or otherwise discussing, grants related to Second Amendment scholarship or to groups interested in banning handguns nationwide.
“Chances are that I would recall it,” said Leff, addng that she also did program work on gun violence for the foundation. “So I think that would have stuck with me.”
Clauss, who contributed $250 to Obama’s 2004 Senate campaign and $500 to his presidential bid, recalled that Obama indicated an interest in becoming president of the foundation after he lost his 2000 congressional primary challenge to incumbent Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.).
In an interview last year with The Boston Globe, Obama played down the seriousness of his discussions with the Joyce Foundation about becoming its president.
The foundation presidency is a full-time job, which paid Leff’s successor $232,000 in 2000. But Clauss said many board members “would have advised Obama not to [take it], since it would have taken him out of the activist political role.”
Politico attempted to contact seven other current and former foundation board members who served with Obama, seeking their recollections about his stances on gun control and the Second Amendment. Four did not return calls or e-mails, one said he had no recollection of Obama’s stances, and two deferred to Ellen Alberding, the current board president.
She acknowledged that the board decided collectively not to comment on Obama’s tenure.
“They’re letting me handle it,” Alberding said. “We figured that it’d probably be better to have one voice.”
Alberding said Sugarmann’s group is “the only organization that we fund that explicitly has that goal” of a national handgun ban. The foundation’s cash can’t be used to lobby, she pointed out. And she stressed that when Obama was on the board, the focus of the foundation’s gun violence program was almost exclusively on studying the issue from a public health perspective.
With all the group’s grants, though, Alberding said, “We’re not promoting a particular solution. We’re promoting really smart people to think about problems and come up with ideas on how to solve them.”
For instance, she pointed out that the foundation also has funded the Ohio State University’s Second Amendment Research Center. Its website says it strives to address gun violence, while also recognizing “equally the widespread private ownership of firearms in the United States, the many legitimate uses of firearms in American society, and the high levels of firearm violence in our country.”
But the center’s director, Saul Cornell, joined Bogus’ Supreme Court brief supporting D.C.’s gun ban.
The center got $525,000 from Joyce during Obama’s time on the board.
Alberding pointed out that gun violence is not among the biggest of the six broad areas in which the foundation issues grants to shape public policy. Its three primary interests are protecting the environment and increasing poor people's access to education and jobs.
The other areas in which the foundation issues grants include reducing the influence of money in politics and boosting high culture in Chicago.
Of the $219 million in grants approved from 1997 through 2002 — the years of Obama’s tenure for which the foundation has posted its annual reports online — the environment received $57 million, followed by education ($56 million), employment ($41 million), gun violence ($21 million), money and politics ($17 million) and culture ($6.5 million).