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The Nation | THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Gun Groups May Not Be Bush Campaign Weapon

The NRA and others were a key asset in 2000. But many activists are disenchanted with the president's record on security measures.

April 13, 2004|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

The National Rifle Assn. sold a videotape on its website during the early days of the 2000 presidential campaign showing a top official predicting that if George W. Bush won, "we'll have a president ... where we work out of their office."

The statement, by now-NRA President Kayne Robinson, was little more than hyperbolic rallying of the troops. He went on to call Democratic nominee Al Gore an "antigun fanatic" whose election would be a "horror story."

But the statement illuminated the hope of many gun-rights activists that, after eight years of tussling with President Clinton, they could -- if they worked hard -- help put a friend in the White House. They did work hard, and Bush won.

Four years later, some gun owners have grown so disenchanted with President Bush that they may cast a protest vote for a third-party candidate, stay away from the polls, or even back the likely Democratic nominee, gun-control advocate John F. Kerry.

It's unclear how many gun owners could be counted as activists, but they are affiliated with a variety of organizations, from the NRA and Gun Owners of America to smaller state and regional organizations around the country. And they could play a pivotal role in the outcome of this year's presidential race.

Surprisingly, the issues that have most alienated many gun groups from the Bush administration have little to do with firearms, but rather with the Patriot Act and other homeland security measures instituted after Sept. 11. Opposition to such laws has aligned gun-rights activists with unlikely partners, such as liberal Democrats and the ACLU.

"It's not just gun rights for us, it's the Bill of Rights," said Angel Shamaya, executive director of KeepAndBearArms.com, which claims tens of thousands of supporters. "A lot of gun-rights advocates are from mildly upset to livid over President Bush and his administration."

The dilemma Bush faces is that although most gun-rights groups consider him far more friendly to their concerns than Kerry, he may have lost enough of their political support to keep them from becoming an energized and therefore influential voting bloc in a close election.

Bush has not engendered "enthusiasm" among gun-rights voters, said Larry Pratt, the longtime head of the Gun Owners of America, a political and lobbying organization. "Sometimes he's good and sometimes he's bad."

The Bush administration has come down on the side of gun-rights groups on several issues, perhaps most notably in opposing efforts to hold firearm manufacturers liable for damages caused by their products. But it also has repeatedly disappointed gun activists on other issues, from refusing to allow airline pilots to arm themselves to quietly supporting the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban.

Still angry about the FBI's 1993 botched raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, gun-rights groups have repeatedly raised the alarm in recent years over privacy and search-and-seizure issues.

They deeply oppose new airline screening procedures, which they view as violations of search-and-seizure laws, the detaining of terrorism suspects without charging them with crimes, and especially the Patriot Act, which allows law enforcement to tap phones without a search warrant in some cases.

Privacy Versus Security

Nelson Lund, a law professor and 2nd Amendment expert at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., says it's not surprising gun-rights advocates are at odds with Bush on privacy and national security issues.

"People who have a strong interest in gun rights tend to be libertarian in their thinking," Lund said. "They tend to be skeptical of the government."

Five months after the Sept. 11 attacks, when many Americans were willing to give the president nearly anything he asked for in terms of security, NRA Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre took the administration to task.

"I have great respect for this administration. But that doesn't mean I have to agree with confiscating nail clippers from grandmothers and poking magnetic wands up skirts" at airports, LaPierre told the Conservative Political Action Conference.

"Too many are too timid to ask what these outrages are supposed to achieve. Too many are too polite to say that our Bill of Rights is too sacred to give up for homeland security or for anything else," he said.

Leaders of the NRA -- with 4 million members, the largest gun-rights group -- are likely to back Bush again in 2004, but mainly because they don't like Kerry. "If you look at a potential Kerry administration, it might have an attorney general that would have to pass muster with [gun-control advocates Sens.] Chuck Schumer, a Dianne Feinstein, a Hillary Clinton. That is not a freedom-friendly group," NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said.

About 50,000 people are expected to attend the NRA's 133rd annual convention this weekend in Pittsburgh, and political organizing is high on the agenda.

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