Of Democrats and Cannibal Flatworms

Back in 1964, the very prestigious journal Science published an astonishing article about some research concerning the biochemistry of memory.  The scientists had trained a type of flatworm called planaria to avoid electric shock, by turning on a light just before giving them the jolt.  Over time, the planaria had learned that when the light came on—scurry away, or they would get the juice run through their part of the tank.

Okay, that’s not surprising—planaria aren’t brilliant, but even these nearly brainless creatures can learn that there’s an association between two stimuli.  What made this experiment so interesting was that planaria are cannibals; given a chance, they will eat their own kind.  And when they did, the diners learned what their dinner already knew: light is a warning that an electric shock is coming.1  It was a major discovery, because it suggested that there is something in brain proteins that contains memories.

I am gratified to report that Democratic members of Congress have demonstrated that they are actually smarter than flatworms.  They have learned about the two stimuli associated from what happened to many of their fellow Democrats in the 1994 election—and without having to resort to cannibalism.

One of the great fears that gun owners had after the disastrous election last year was that Democrats would use their control of both houses of Congress and the White House to come up with a bunch of new gun control laws.  President Obama within an hour of inauguration had the White House website arguing for more gun control laws, including repeal of the Tiahart Amendment, and passage of a new federal assault weapons ban.2  As I mentioned in my May 1st column, “Poor Mexico,” both Obama and Attorney-General Eric Holder talked about a national ban on assault weapons sales (not just a ban on new manufacture, as was the case with the 1994-2004 federal ban).3  And it was Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, long the enemy of gun owners, who told the Administration that the federal government needed to enforce our existing laws, instead of passing new laws.4  

It gets better (or weirder).  I mentioned in my February 1, 2009 column that the Bush Administration, as something of a parting gift to gun owners, passed a change in National Park Service policy so that each national park would use the concealed carry policy of the surrounding state.  If you could legally carry concealed in New Hampshire, then you could legally carry concealed in national parks in New Hampshire.  If you have a California concealed carry permit (lucky you), you could carry in Yosemite.  If you had a concealed carry permit from your home state, and you were visiting a national park in Idaho (which recognizes all other state concealed carry permits), you could carry in national parks in Idaho.  In a national park in Illinois, you could not carry concealed, because Illinois doesn’t issue such permits.  That last one isn’t wonderful, but you can’t carry concealed anywhere else in Illinois, so this doesn’t really help you any.

Inevitably, gun control groups and some conservation organizations filed suit to block this administrative change in National Park Service rules.  Because the Bush Administration hadn’t dotted every “i” and crossed every “t” exactly the way that a federal judge wanted, this change was put on hold a few months back.  

Eventually, there was a real chance that we would have won this dispute about the Bush Administration’s policy change—but instead, pro-gun members of Congress attached a provision to a credit card financing bill that allows loaded firearms in national parks on the same basis as the surrounding state law.  (Yes, a credit card financing bill—guns in national parks are so germane to credit card issues, don’t you agree?)  Unlike the Bush Administration’s rule change, this does not appear to be limited to concealed carry, or to handguns.5  It will be at least February of next year, however, before this law takes effect.  (Unfortunately, as I write this column, I can’t find the full text of the final bill anywhere—in spite of President Obama’s campaign promise that every bill he signed would be visible for review by ordinary citizens for five days.)  

This is a really astonishingly good action by Congress and President Obama for two reasons.  First, this law is broader than the administrative rule change that is now tied up in the courts.  Wisconsin, for example, doesn’t allow concealed carry, but has recently ruled that open carry is constitutionally protected, so you will be able to carry openly in national parks in Wisconsin.  Secondly, because this is a federal law, passed by Congress, and signed by the President, the Obama Administration cannot later change the rules about guns in national parks.  Congress could repeal this law, if they chose, but that’s a lot harder than administrative rule changes.

What makes this even more astonishing is that the vote to attach this national park provision to the credit card bill included lot only most Republicans in Congress—but many Democrats.  The House voted 279-147 to allow loaded firearms in national parks.  It even included many Democrats who are historical enemies of gun rights—although it appears that a number of these Democrats who voted with us may have not understood for what they were voting.6  (Perhaps they also don’t understand for what they are voting when they vote against us.)  In the Senate, the vote was even more lopsided: 67-29, including 27 Democrats and one independent.7
So, did the Democratic Party suddenly en masse turn pro-gun?  I don’t think so.  Like those planaria, they have learned something from 1994, when the Brady Law and the federal assault weapons ban played a major role in turning control of both houses of Congress over to the Republican Party.  As I write this column, the White House’s “Urban Policy” page has lost all discussion of gun control.8  Rahm Emmanuel, one of President Obama’s advisors, “helped orchestrate passage of the original assault-weapons ban,” when Emmanuel worked for the Clinton White House.  For that reason, I rather doubt that Obama and friends have suddenly become our friends.  It appears that they have learned that gun owners are simply too powerful a bunch to fight when they have other parts of public policy to destroy.9  (If only the rest of our society was as effective at protecting themselves from insane policies as we gun owners are.)

Let’s not get complacent.  I’m sure that there will come a point where the Obama Administration will look for some way to accomplish their goals in a less direct way, perhaps after utterly destroying the U.S. economy with “cap and trade” carbon taxes.  I am confident that many of Obama’s judicial nominees will be fiercely hostile to gun rights—and once a federal judge is on the bench, he is effectively there for life—unlike members of Congress.  In the meantime, we can bask in the pleasure of knowing that we are so powerful that our fiercest enemies are afraid to upset us.

Clayton E. Cramer is a software engineer and historian.  His sixth book, Armed America: The Remarkable Story of How and Why Guns Became as American as Apple Pie (Nelson Current, 2006), is available in bookstores.  His web site is http://www.claytoncramer.com.


1 Arlene L. Hartry, Patricia Keith-Lee, and William D. Morton,Planaria: Memory Transfer through Cannibalism Reexamined,” Science 9[October 1964]146:3641:274-5.

2 Pete Williams, “First 100 days: Assault weapons ban,” MSNBC, April 24, 2009, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/30389664/, last accessed May 29, 2009.

3 Jason Ryan, “Obama to Seek New Assault Weapons Ban,” ABC News, February 25, 2009, http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/story?id=6960824&page=1, last accessed March 24, 2009.

4 Sam Youngman, “Cabinet picks throw wrench into message,” The Hill, March 2, 2009, http://thehill.com/leading-the-news/cabinet-picks-throw-wrench-into-message-2009-03-02.html, last accessed March 24, 2009.

5 Kirk Johnson, “Working Out the Details of Guns in National Parks,” New York Times, May 26, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/27/us/27guns.html?ref=global-home, last accessed May 29, 2009.

6 Jonathan Allen and Richard Rubin, “Oops! Gun Foes Mistakenly Side With the NRA,” CQ Politics, May 29, 2009, http://www.cqpolitics.com/wmspage.cfm?parm1=5&docID=news-000003126476, last accessed May 29, 2009.

7 Janet Hook, “Senate votes to ease ban on loaded guns in national parks,” Los Angeles Times, May 13, 2009, http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-parks-gun-law13-2009may13,0,7740289.story, last accessed May 29, 2009.

8 White House, “Urban Policy,” http://www.whitehouse.gov/issues/urban_policy/, last accessed May 29, 2009.

9 Michael Isikoff and Suzanne Smalley, “Obama Gets Gun-Shy,” Newsweek, April 11, 2009, http://www.newsweek.com/id/193589, last accessed May 29, 2009.