Gov. George W. Bush, taking a new direction in his evolving approach to gun control, launched a program Friday to give free trigger locks to any handgun owners in Texas who want them.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee initiated the program with little advance notice, setting aside $1 million per year in state funds for five years to purchase trigger locks that will be distributed through police stations and fire departments.
If elected president, Bush said, he would offer the giveaway nationwide, at a cost to the federal government of about $450 million over five years. He proposed that state governments match part of the funds to bring the total cost of the proposal to $750 million over five years, enough to equip the estimated 65 million handguns in circulation.
"It seems like to me one of the things we ought to do is be common-sensical about how we deal with gun safety," Bush said during an interview on NBC-TV's "Today" show. "I think this makes sense."
Bush's plan was quickly criticized by Texas Democrats, who charged that the governor was using state taxpayer funds to politically benefit his presidential campaign and mask his pro-gun record.
"This is ridiculous," said Molly Beth Malcolm, chairwoman of the Texas Democratic Party. "He ought to be putting trigger locks on Texas taxpayers' money."
President Clinton also attacked the proposal, charging that it is a politically motivated attempt to distance his presidential campaign from the National Rifle Assn.
"So he wants to move away from that image," Clinton said in a Friday morning interview on ABC-TV's "Good Morning America" program. "He wants people not to think that he won't do anything. . . . Basically, the NRA will control policy on this, which they will if he wins."
Vice President Al Gore did not comment on the plan Friday, but his spokesman called it "a smoke screen." "Time after time, George W. Bush has sided with the irresponsible policies of the gun lobby at the expense of our children's safety," said spokesman Chris Lehane.
Clinton made his own gun policy announcement Friday. During an appearance in Akron, Ohio, he awarded a pair of $300,000 grants to two gun makers to help develop the technology for so-called smart guns, which fire only when wielded by their owners.
The announcements by Bush and Clinton were offered as organizers prepared for the Million Mom March on Sunday. The day of rallies and marches in Washington and around the country is designed to call attention to the issue of gun violence.
Gun violence promises to be a key topic in the elections this fall. But while recent polls have found widespread support for new gun control measures, they also show Americans are ambivalent about whether such laws would actually stem the flow of shootings.
In the past, Bush has appeared equivocal about trigger locks, which are designed to prevent accidental firings by preventing the use of a weapon without a key or combination.
He has not opposed the idea in Texas, but he has also raised questions about how it would be implemented, especially as a government mandate. More recently, he has said he would sign legislation to require that guns be sold with trigger locks.
"I have no problem with trigger locks being sold," Bush said in a Los Angeles debate in March. "What I have a problem with is figuring out how you're going to enforce whether or not somebody is actually using it on the gun in the first place. . . . Are we going to have trigger lock police knocking on people's doors and saying, 'Show me a trigger lock'?"
Bush's latest proposal seeks to expand the availability of trigger locks to make sure that gun owners who have already purchased their weapons have ready access to the devices. It is financed from a state criminal justice fund that can be spent at the governor's discretion without approval from the state Legislature.
"It's an option," Bush said. "In other words, you can't make people use trigger locks. We would love to convince people to use trigger locks to make sure that our society is safe. And so the first step is to make them available for free. And we hope it works here in Texas."
Clinton and Gore are backing legislation in Congress that would make trigger locks mandatory.
Bush has been a solid backer of gun rights, with his positions mirroring many of those held by the NRA, the country's largest gun lobby. As Texas governor, he signed three major pieces of gun legislation, one in 1995 that allows the carrying of concealed weapons and a second bill in 1997 that modified the first to permit churches and amusement park owners the discretion to allow concealed weapons on their grounds.
Last year, Bush signed a bill that makes it more difficult for municipalities to sue gun makers by forcing all such action to go through the state attorney general's office.