WASHINGTON — When Supreme Court justices debate the legality of the District of Columbia's ban on handguns in coming weeks, their file will include a legal brief from Vice President Dick Cheney, Arizona Sen. John McCain and 54 other senators asking that the law be overturned.
But they won't find anything from Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York or Barack Obama of Illinois. They didn't sign the rival brief from other members of Congress who back the tough handgun restrictions.
The Democratic presidential candidates' silence is part of a pattern. For years, the national party has downplayed its historic sympathy for gun control for fear that emphasizing it would be politically costly.
Democratic politicians are "nervous about the gun issue, so they stay away from it," said Paul Helmke, the president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Gun-rights advocates described the Democrats' dilemma in starker terms.
"The fact is that politicians have discovered there are 80 million law-abiding gun owners, and they're mad as all get out at politicians who want to take their guns away," said John Snyder, a spokesman for the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms.
Democrats have been skittish about gun control since 1994. Their support for a strong anti-crime bill that summer, which included a ban on 19 types of assault weapons, was later seen by many party strategists as one reason that the party that year lost control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years.
Six years later, after Vice President Al Gore lost states with large numbers of gun-rights advocates, many Democrats again saw gun control as a key reason he lost the presidential election.
"The NRA (National Rifle Association) had enough votes in New Hampshire, in Arkansas, maybe in Tennessee and Missouri to beat us," Bill Clinton said after the election, "and they whipped us in a few other places."
In 2004, Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts touted his credentials as a hunter. Current Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean has said that guns are a state issue.
The Brady group counters that in 2006 Democrats won five gubernatorial and four Senate races against tough-on-guns advocates endorsed by the NRA. But in every case, the winning Democrat already was a popular figure, and most were running in states where most residents were sympathetic to gun restrictions.
The gun issue this year is being driven by the District of Columbia case. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments last week and will issue a decision by late June.
McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, joined a group that included Cheney as well as 46 other Republican and eight Democratic senators, most from rural or Southern states, in signing a brief that seeks to bring Congress' "unique perspective to this court's attention."
The brief explains "the historical meaning of the Second Amendment as understood by the Congress," and argues that the handgun ban infringes on "the rights of law-abiding citizens . . . as guaranteed by the Second Amendment."
The amendment, in its entirety, says: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
A rival brief, signed by 18 Democratic members of Congress, counters that lawmakers long have had the right to regulate — and ban — "the use and possession of certain weapons."
Clinton and Obama have long histories of sympathy for that view.
When Obama first ran for the Illinois Senate 12 years ago, he answered "yes" to whether he backed banning the manufacture, sale and possession of handguns in the state.
He's softened that position in recent years. When she was asked why Obama didn't sign one of the Supreme Court briefs, campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, "Barack Obama believes the Second Amendment creates an individual right, and he greatly respects the constitutional right of Americans to bear arms."
But, she added, "he also believes that the Constitution permits state and local governments to adopt reasonable and commonsense gun-safety measures." She didn't specify what such measures might entail.
Clinton has a long history as an outspoken supporter of tough gun-control measures, but she, too, has moderated in recent months; last month in Wisconsin, she described how she once went hunting in Arkansas and shot a banded duck.
At a January debate, she called herself a "political realist, and I understand that the political winds are very powerful against doing enough to try to get guns off the street."
Her words were almost identical to those of Obama; "I believe in the Second Amendment," she said. "People have a right to bear arms. But I also believe that we can commonsensically approach this."
Gun control advocates hear comments such as these and figure that 2008 will be another year when their cause will be hard to notice.
Politicians "don't want to have that rock in their knapsack," said Roy Romer, a former Colorado governor and former Democratic Party general chairman. "I've seen the National Rifle Association guys sit in the front row of their town hall meetings. It's a tough thing."
In case Clinton or Obama forgets the gun owners' message, gun-advocate Snyder is ready to offer them a vivid reminder.
"This is going to be a big issue, because when people keep worrying about the situation in the world, they will worry about their ability to defend themselves," he said.
Not all is hopeless, though, gun-controller Helmke said, because guns are an issue that can erupt into the nation's conscience at any time. Wait until May or June, when the Supreme Court is expected to rule on the Washington case, he said.
"When that decision comes down," Helmke said, "candidates will be asked to say something, and to say something concrete."
ON THE WEB
Obama's and Clinton's responses to a gun control question at a January candidates debate.
A video clip of Clinton talking about her duck-hunting experience.