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Democrats Speak Softly On Gun Control
Wary Of Losing Votes, Most Candidates Try To Keep Their Distance From A Loaded Issue

By DAVID LIGHTMAN
Washington Bureau Chief

July 9 2003

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Gun control used to be an easy, reliable issue for Democrats. Presidential candidates could bring it up and audiences would cheer.

No more. As the party's nine White House hopefuls hop from city to city in candidate forums, no one seems to want to talk guns.

They seem frightened of the issue. They know that most Democratic urban and suburban voters want strict curbs on guns, but Democrats in rural and Western states often abhor the idea of limits. And there is a strong sense that the tough stand on gun control cost the party key elections in 2000 and 2002.

So no one brings up guns, few even mention it on their Internet sites and when someone else asks about the topic, candidates say, "Sure, we're for gun control, but we're also for letting people keep their guns."

Connecticut Democrat Joseph I. Lieberman has gotten a bitter taste of how sensitive the issue can be. Gun control groups, which have long regarded him as an ally, are disappointed in his recent comments.

"At the end of the day, he buys our agenda. But he's also running away from it," said Blaine Rummel, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

Gun control advocates are concerned about more than just Lieberman. "Democrats are nervous about these issues," said Peter Hamm, communications director for the Brady Campaign, "but they really don't need to be."

Gun owner groups say they won't relent simply because candidates appear to be softening their positions. "Our members are very savvy. They know the rhetoric doesn't match the record," said Chris W. Cox, the National Rifle Association's chief lobbyist.

What's stirring concern about Lieberman among gun control groups is his reply to a question at the May 2 South Carolina candidates' debate.

Lieberman has an exemplary gun control record; according to the Brady Committee to Prevent Gun Violence, he has voted its way 90 percent of the time on key votes since 1991. But he differed with Al Gore in 2000, when Gore wanted to license all new handguns bought by consumers.

"I do not support that proposal," Lieberman said in May in response to a question at the South Carolina debate. "I have never supported such a proposal."

But he ran with Gore, it was pointed out.

"Gore came out with that position before I came onto the ticket. The issue never really came up," he said.

Lieberman went on to explain: "American citizens have a right to own firearms." But, he added, that right, like all others, has limits.

He supports laws that are aimed at stopping criminals and others who should not have guns, and in 2001 he was a chief sponsor of legislation to provide background checks, within 24 hours, for most gun show sales.

Lieberman's views are widely shared among Democrats. At the South Carolina debate, only the Rev. Al Sharpton said he supported the licensing and registration of handguns. Other Democrats, including Lieberman, say the issue is simply not worth debating because it is not being taken seriously in Congress.

The candidates, though, seem reluctant to debate much of anything involving guns these days.

All this is a switch from the 1990s, when President Clinton directed strong gun control initiatives from the Oval Office. Then came the elections, when many thought Democrats lost because they offended too many gun owners.

"This [pro-gun control] attitude has been a real problem in the West," Montana Democratic Chairman Bob Ream said. "Republicans have painted Democrats as people who will take your guns away."

"I know there are concerns in large cities, but I want to hear candidates stand up and say they support the Second Amendment," said Edgar Malepeai, vice chairman of the Idaho Democratic Party.

They tried. At the Democratic Party chairmen's meeting in St. Paul last month, Western and Southern officials quizzed candidates on their gun views. Malepeai heard Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt say: "I support the right of any law-abiding citizen to own and use firearms for legal purposes. It's important for all of us to say that in our country."

That kind of talk sounded good to Virginia Chairman Larry Framme. "Hunting's a very, very important issue," he said.

He asked Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry for his views, and Kerry talked about how he was hunting at the age of 8 or 9, when he went to his cousins' Massachusetts farm to shoot woodchucks. While he supports background checks and a ban on assault weapons, he said, "I never contemplated hunting deer or anything else with an AK-47."

Even Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, considered one of the most liberal, urban candidates, said that while he comes from a city, Cleveland, "I'm sensitive to guns. It's possible to have gun laws that in no way interfere with hunters."

The gun owners' Democratic favorite is former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. "My position is keep the background checks and the ban on assault weapons," he said, "but let states do what they want." With that view, he told the chairmen, "I can run in the West."

All this makes gun control groups and their backers cringe.

"Whether Democrats or Republicans advanced their cause based on their position on guns [in 2000] is a disputed question," pollster Celinda Lake said. She cites Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, where the NRA made big pushes. Gore won all three states, and she maintains that his strong gun control positions helped woo key suburban voters.

Cox of the NRA disputes such talk. If anything, he said, Democrats hurt themselves posing in camouflage for ads or embracing gun owners with their rhetoric after years of voting against their interests.

Surveys continue to show the public is divided over the gun issue. Gallup regularly surveys people about gun laws, and in October it found that just over half wanted stricter laws, while 47 percent wanted less strict laws or keeping the laws as they are.

The issue seems poised to go the way of abortion in the Republican Party: heard occasionally, but rarely seen.

As Rummel put it, "Democrats think this is political poison."
Copyright 2003, Hartford Courant
 
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