Bob Barr: The Transformation of a Former Republican
by Erich Pratt
Director of Communications
It’s a truism in Washington that a politician’s voting record gets worse the more time he spends in Congress. Even the most fire-breathing constitutionalist has buckled under the pressure of party politics to vote for pork barrel projects and other anti-rights measures which are completely contrary to the positions on which he or she campaigned.
There are exceptions to this rule, however. And one notable exception is former Rep. Bob Barr, the Libertarian Party candidate for president this year.
Barr arrived in Congress in 1995 as a former U.S. prosecutor. Sporting a law-and-order mindset, his voting record was often antithetical to gun rights, as he only voted right in 8 out of 14 votes in his first term.
Many of his early votes in Congress showed his strong support for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms — an agency which has spent several decades terrifying and abusing gun owners. In his first term, Barr voted to allow the ATF to conduct warrantless searches of gun owners, to increase the agency’s pay by $40 million, and to federalize many state crimes which would have increased the scope and jurisdiction of the ATF.1
Moreover, Barr also voted for an appropriations bill which contained two pieces of pernicious gun control:
* The Lautenberg gun ban which disarms gun owners for small (misdemeanor) offenses in the home — “offenses” as slight as spanking a child or grabbing a spouse; and
* The Kohl gun ban which creates a virtual one-half mile wide “gun free” circle around every American school (or a 1,000 foot zone going in any one direction from any school).2
Needless to say, Bob Barr’s first term was certainly not memorable in the minds of most gun owners. But what happened after that can only be described as remarkable, as over the following years (until his retirement in 2003), Barr voted right on 27 out of 31 votes affecting gun rights.3
Not only that, Barr sponsored bills to prevent frivolous lawsuits against the gun industry and spearheaded the fight against a National ID card and the so-called “sneak and peek” provisions in the PATRIOT Act.
So what happened during his first term that so drastically affected his conduct during the rest of his career? While certainly many factors may have been in play, two notable confrontations between Rep. Barr and Gun Owners of America could certainly explain his epiphany.
During his first year in office, Rep. Barr was tasked by the Republican leadership to sponsor legislation that would repeal the very unpopular ban on semi-automatic firearms (which had been enacted by President Clinton the year before).
While Barr introduced the bill, HR 1488, his bill also did much more, as it would have increased the power and scope of the ATF. GOA met with Rep. Bob Barr several times and brought the problematic provision to his attention. GOA also launched a grassroots campaign which lasted for several months — a campaign which resulted in several key Representatives demanding that the offending provision be removed from HR 1488.
In the end, GOA was able to persuade Rep. Barr to drop the provision. Instrumental in this decision was the outpouring of letters and faxes from GOA members.
Even Rep. Barr himself stated that GOA’s grassroots efforts were extremely effective in the campaign to get the BATF-enhancement provisions deleted. In a personal meeting between GOA lobbyists and the Congressman, Barr told GOA Executive Director Larry Pratt, “Your mail has been very successful [on Capitol Hill].”
At this point, GOA was asked by the Republican leadership to help clean up the bill. Roll Call, the newspaper of record for events in Congress, reported in October of 1995 that GOA “won a match” in forcing changes in H.R. 1488.
Other sources on Capitol Hill also stated that the postcards, letters, faxes and emails from GOA members were instrumental in getting Congressmen to demand that the changes be made. Before the avalanche of mail, there had been little support for striking the dangerous provisions from the bill.
Government terror legislation
The second confrontation during Barr’s first term involved the Republican-sponsored anti-terrorism bill (H.R. 2703). As one of only three cosponsors on the bill, Rep. Barr was intent on pushing his terror bill through the Congress instead of the Chuck Schumer version that was also getting some attention.
GOA opposed the Barr bill, as it would have — among other things — jeopardized the gun industry by punishing gun dealers for selling a firearm to someone that they should have known was going to use or threaten to use the gun in a crime of violence. This would have driven all gun sales underground, as only the clairvoyant know who is going to use a gun in a crime!
Sparks flew at a meeting on Capitol Hill after GOA challenged the bill’s contents at a meeting of conservatives where Barr was present. Barr defended his bill vociferously.
But after thousands of faxes and postcards were dumped on Capitol Hill, GOA’s grassroots pressure encouraged freshmen Congressmen to hold tight and kill the terrorism bill in late 2005. Roll Call remarked that:
The [terror bill] compromise unraveled as conservative House Republicans — many of them freshmen — backed the Gun Owners position and refused to follow Barr.4
One of those freshmen, Rep. Joe Scarborough (R-FL), noted that it was “Gun Owners of America [who] led the fight in defeating the terrorism bill in 1995. They generated grassroots pressure that made it possible for us to hold tight and keep the bill from passing.”5
While the terror bill eventually passed the following year, it only did so after Rep. Barr introduced an amendment to delete most of GOA’s concerns from the bill. The Barr amendment passed 229-191.6 Yes, Barr did end up voting for final passage of the bill (which was still rated by as an anti-gun vote by GOA). But the entire struggle had left an indelible mark on Barr. From this time on, he would generally be walking with us (even if it meant opposing his party).
The transformation nearly complete
The late U.S. Senator Everett Dirksen was fond of saying, “When I feel the heat, I see the light.” Gun owners exerted tremendous grassroots pressure for two full years on Bob Barr. He felt the heat and, for the most part, he was changed forevermore.
Yes, there were exceptions. For example, he never quite fully recanted his support for the Lautenberg gun ban, which he had voted for in 1996. While he later introduced a repeal bill, it would have only applied to the retroactive part of the gun ban, leaving the misdemeanor ban in place for the future.
Barr defended his “repeal” bill, telling USA Today that, “This [misdemeanor gun ban] is important and worthwhile legislation, and we cannot allow its effectiveness to be reduced.”7
In the end, one might conclude that Barr’s voting record on firearms issues is not quite 100 percent in line with the Libertarian Party. That is true. But as noted above, his voting record after his first term in Congress improved tremendously (voting right in 27 out of 31 votes) — a record that is certainly better than 99 percent of most Republicans and Democrats.8
When political pundits look back on his congressional career, they don’t typically remember the first term, but rather the civil libertarian that emerged during the ensuing years.
Jesse Walker, writing in Reason magazine, says that during his congressional career, “Barr was one of Washington’s loudest critics of the federal government’s abuses of power, taking the lead in investigating the raid on Waco and in opposing Bill Clinton’s efforts to undermine due process in terrorism cases.”9
Barr himself — when introducing the staunch pro-gunner, Ron Paul, at the Conservative Political Action Conference this past February — told the cheering delegates that, “If there was ever, ever any doubt in my mind … about how to vote on a particular bill, the answer was easy … you see where Ron Paul stands on an issue, and you know that’s the right place to be.”10
Given the fact that Ron Paul is a strong constitutionalist and a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment, that’s not a bad endorsement to hear from a presidential hopeful. To be sure, Barr supported Paul’s efforts to withdraw the United States from the United Nations while he was still in the Congress. Many gun owners support such a withdrawal due to the strong anti-gun advocacy of the global organization.
Currently, Bob Barr serves on the NRA Board of Directors and works with national organizations on issues ranging from privacy to national security.
1 See www.gunowners.org/104hvote.htm
3 See www.gunowners.org/cgv.htm
4 Roll Call, February 19, 1996.
6 See www.gunowners.org/104hvote.htm
7 USA Today, March 6, 1997
8 Bob Barr’s voting record on firearms clearly improved as time passed. In his fifth year, Barr even voted with small minorities in the House to support gun owners’ rights. He opposed language that would have mandated trigger locks sales with every handgun sold (Barr was one of only 115 congressmen who voted correctly) and opposed an amendment that would have criminalized the juvenile possession of certain semi-automatic firearms (Barr was one of only 69 who voted right). See Congressional Gun Votes at www.gunowners.org/cgv.htm — click on U.S. House of Representatives, 106th Congress, First Session (1999).
9 Jesse Walker, “Bob Barr, Civil Libertarian: The right wing of the ACLU,” Reason (December 2003).
10 George Dance, “Ron Paul supporter Bob Barr to declare for President,” Nolan Chart (April 3, 2008).