Targeting the Gun Vote

Politicians everywhere are courting the sportsman vote, but which candidates can gun owners trust?

For the first time in a long time, gun owners are going into a presidential election holding a strong hand of cards. It is no secret that the anti-gun rhetoric used by the Democratic Party and its candidate in 2000, Vice President Al Gore, cost the Democrats dearly. As a result, George W. Bush, a lifelong sportsman and shooter, was elected to the Oval Office. Once there, he installed a Justice Department that was not afraid to come out and utter the words that many gun owners had long waited for: The federal government understands that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to keep and bear firearms.

That moment marked a turning of the tide in the political debate over gun rights. After years of hostility from our highest officials, gun owners had an avowed ally in the White House. Even better, Bush’s election and the Republican majority in Congress generated a scramble among Democrats to come to terms with the political costs of their party’s core beliefs about firearms ownership. Politicians who had once been eager to rush before the nearest TV camera to crow about their anti-gun credentials now shun the limelight when the topic of gun rights comes up.

Given this reluctance to speak forthrightly, how will voters ferret out the true leanings of candidates this election? A look at the main gun-rights issues that will come into play this November is a good place to start.

** Assault-Weapons Ban**
The sunset of the assault-weapons ban is the number one gun-control issue this year. Lacking support for new gun-control measures, anti-gun activists are hoping that congressional members friendly to their cause will push to extend the Clinton-era law that banned the sale to civilians of certain types of semi-automatic rifles and high-capacity magazines. If lawmakers do nothing, which is what most observers expect will happen, the law will expire in mid- September, making this one of the easiest gun-rights victories in recent memory. “The assault-weapons ban will fall from the books entirely unnoticed by the vast majority of Americans,” says Patrick O’Malley of the Federalist Group, a gun-rights lobbying firm.

Part of the reason it will slip away without much fanfare is that few lawmakers will clamor for its reinstatement-at least until after the results of the November elections have been tallied. “The assault-weapons ban will go away this year but will come back in the future,” says Ted Rowe, an executive at Sturm, Ruger & Co. “How soon we’ll see it again and how successful it is depends a lot on who is elected president.”

** Junk Lawsuits**
Chances are, you’ve heard about the lawsuits filed against gunmakers and others in the firearms industry that seek to hold them responsible when criminals use their guns. The groups behind these suits argue that gunmakers have been negligent by allowing criminals easy access to guns and therefore should pay up. It doesn’t take much critical thinking to punch holes in this logic: Should automakers be held liable if someone takes a car for a joyride down a crowded sidewalk? Indeed, nearly every one of these lawsuits has been either tossed out of court outright or overturned on appeal. While the people behind the lawsuits would love to achieve a decisive legal victory that puts a gun company out of business, their unspoken goal is to drain resources from the gun industry over a lengthy period of time. To counter this “death by a thousand cuts” strategy, the firearms industry, backed by the National Rifle Association, lobbied hard to pass a bill that would prohibit such lawsuits. Unfortunately, the bill’s sponsors couldn’t get it to the Senate floor without a variety of unpalatable amendments-so-called “poison pills”-being added to it that essentially killed the effort. A look at how your representatives voted on this issue may not tell you much. Once the amendments had been added, the NRA and the Natiol Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) urged lawmakers to vote against the bill. So pro-gun legislators ended up voting in concert with avowed anti-gunners. The goal for gun-rights champions is to bolster the pro-gun majority in Congress to get this legislation signed into law. “We need a 60-vote pro-gun majority in the Senate to get the liability bill passed without having a poison pill attached,” says O’Malley. International Gun Control An issue that hasn’t received much play in the national media is the effort by many members of the United Nations to develop and enforce an international gun-control policy. The impetus behind this is to keep military small arms out of the wrong hands, but the sweeping language of some of the proposals would curtail the rights of private gun owners.

“The Bush administration has supported gun owners’ rights before the United Nations, which essentially wants to take guns away from everyone,” says Rowe. John Bolton, the Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security in the Bush administration, has done a forceful job defending the rights of civilian gun owners before the United Nations. That level of vigilance will be needed in the future as resolutions concerning this international gun-registration system will come before the United Nations again in 2005 and 2006, Rowe says. While President Bush’s resolve to defeat these proposals is beyond question, according to Rowe, who has represented the firearms industry in the United Nations, the other Presidential hopefuls’ takes on these matters is unknown.

[pagebreak] Democratic Strategy**
Unknown is a good word to describe the positions of many of this fall’s candidates when it comes to gun rights. “You’ve seen a sea change on this issue from 2000. Presidential candidates Bill Bradley and Al Gore thought gun control would be a political winner, and clearly it wasn’t,” says Chris Cox, the NRA’s chief lobbyist.

As a measure of how different things are this time around, Cox says there hasn’t been a single dollar spent by any campaign on advertising for greater gun control.

“Democrats are not only avoiding the gun-control issue, they’re covering themselves in blaze orange,” says NSSF President Doug Painter.

One Democrat who has taken this approach is Senator John Kerry. He made sure photographers were on hand to snap photos of him in an Iowa pheasant field last year, dressed in upland hunting garb and toting a shotgun. On the campaign trail you’ll hear aides describe him as a hunter and shooter and as someone who fully supports the Second Amendment and the right to own firearms.

Take a look at his voting record during his nearly 19 years in the Senate, however, and it would be difficult to square the image of Kerry as a hunter with the man who has received a 100 percent voting rating from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Sarah Brady’s anti-gun policy group.

“During his career, Kerry has taken every opportunity to vote against gun owners,” says Cox. “He’s voted to ban deer ammo, ban guns and ban gun shows. He’s voted against gun owners and sportsmen fifty times during his nineteen years in the Senate.”

So what can we make of Kerry’s and other politicians’ about-face on gun rights? Even if it were sincere, Painter says it isn’t worth the risk of voting for them. “I don’t believe Kerry would be a friend of the sportsman,” he says.

The potential cost to gun owners of a Bush loss this November is acute, according to O’Malley. “Look at what we stand to gain. We have a White House that is making progress on any number of initiatives at the federal agencies to overturn the Clinton legacy and make them supportive of a sportsman-friendly policy,” says O’Malley. “In a second term a president is much more aggressive about leaving a legacy and making a lasting mark, and that’s where we can get some work done. If Kerry gets into the White House, all our gains will go down the drain and we’ll be in a defensive posture for the next four years.”

se, all our gains will go down the drain and we’ll be in a defensive posture for the next four years.”