This afternoon's pro-gun vote in the U.S. House of Representatives wasn't supposed to happen.
Ever since it looked like a Democrat had a good shot at the White House, gun rights groups have been loading for bear. One example: Alan Gottlieb and Dave Workman published a book last year titled These Dogs Don't Hunt: The Democrats' War On Guns, which wondered if it's "something Democrats drink that causes them to climb aboard the Gun Control Express."
Candidate Barack Obama's record on the Second Amendment was anything but supportive; he appears to have once endorsed a complete ban on handgun possession, though aides claimed someone else filled out the survey. Other prominent Democrats, including Sen. Chuck Schumer, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Rep. Henry Waxman, and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, seemed equally enthusiastic about new restrictions targeting law-abiding gun owners.
So what persuaded a sizable majority of the House and Senate to vote for a bill lauding the "the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens?" (Part of the credit card-related legislation that the House approved today by a 249-147 vote repeals a ban on carrying weapons on federal lands.)
Perhaps the most important reason is that Democrats strengthened their grip on Congress by enlisting more pro-gun members from western and rural districts who have been far more sympathetic to firearm ownership.
This reflects broader public sentiment. A CNN poll last month found that only 39 percent of Americans want stricter gun laws, down from 50 percent in 2000. Meanwhile, support for relaxing gun laws, some of which are extremely strict, is up.
No wonder that 65 "Blue Dog" House Democrats wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder in March saying they were "strong supporters of the Second Amendment" and would "actively oppose any effort to reinstate" a ban on the sale of semi-automatic rifles with features such as a folding stock or pistol grip. And no wonder that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer -- who has an "F" rating from the National Rifle Association -- yesterday seemed to concede temporary defeat on firearms-related legislation.
David Kopel, research director at the Colorado-based Independence Institute and author of a number of books supporting gun rights, believes that gun politics have shifted along with public sentiment. "If you take away the Blue Dogs, they're back in the minority," David Kopel, told CBSNews.com in a recent interview, referring to Democrats. "There's nothing they can do to endanger Blue Dogs like making gun control a major national topic like it was in the early '90s in the Clinton administration."
Today's vote gave Second Amendment groups something to crow about. Gun Owners of America told supporters that their activism "has finally broken through." Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms called it a "victory for gun rights and common sense," and the National Rifle Association said it was a "major repudiation of the gun control community's anti self-defense agenda."
The Brady Campaign, for its part, called the legislation "dangerous" and noted that: "By attaching this language to an unrelated bill designed to protect credit card users, those pushing more guns in more places have insulated themselves from any possible chance of a veto by President Obama."
That's one thing, at least, that both sides can agree on. Another example is a proposal to grant Washington, D.C. a voting representative in the U.S. Congress -- a measure that cleared the Senate but has stalled in the House.
The reason? Pro-gun Democrats joined pro-gun Republicans in inserting language that would repeal significant portions of Washington, D.C.'s gun control law -- which the U.S. Supreme Court deemed so Draconian it partially overruled last year. But city officials have been fighting a rearguard battle ever since, including insisting that standard semiautomatic pistols qualify as "machine guns," which has led to a second federal lawsuit.
As a side note, today's vote doesn't mean that anyone can carry a gun on all federal lands. Assuming Mr. Obama signs the measure, it would reinstate regulations from the outgoing Bush administration, which say that the federal government may not prohibit someone from possessing a firearm on public lands as long as it's permitted under state law.
Not much would change in states like California that are reluctant to grant concealed carry permits, or that don't grant them at all. The bigger difference would be in states that are more willing to grant permits, or which require no advance permission.
And the biggest difference may be that, at least given the current membership of the U.S. Congress, supporters of gun rights appear to have reason to be optimistic for the first time in many, many years.