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Gun Control Remains a Loaded Issue for Democratic Candidates

The rhetoric may be toned down, but the aim remains the same.

February 06, 2004|John R. Lott Jr. and Grover Norquist | John R. Lott Jr. is the author of "The Bias Against Guns" (Regnery, 2003). Grover Norquist is the president of Americans for Tax Reform.

Everyone seems to believe that Democrats have changed their minds on gun control. Out on the campaign trail, John Kerry and John Edwards and Wesley Clark talk about their boyhood hunting trips. Before the Iowa caucuses, Kerry even took time out to shoot a pheasant. The gun control organization Americans for Gun Safety calls it "taking the gun issue to the political center." The National Rifle Assn.'s leader, Wayne LaPierre, claims that "the center of the party saw that [advocating gun control] was a dead end for the Democrats." And Newsweek spread the word: "At least among the presidential candidates," said an article in January, "Democrats are moderating their stances" on gun control.

If one reads the candidates' public statements on the 2nd Amendment, they certainly seem moderate:

Kerry: "I believe that the Constitution, our laws and our customs protect law-abiding American citizens' right to own firearms.... I believe that the right of gun ownership comes with responsibilities."

Howard Dean: "Law-abiding citizens should have the right to own firearms for hunting and other legitimate purposes, subject to reasonable restrictions related to gun safety."

Edwards: "I believe that the 2nd Amendment protects Americans' right to own firearms for purposes like hunting and personal protection, and that this right is subject to responsible limits like other rights."

The uniformity of views is striking, as are the "reasonable restrictions" the major Democratic candidates support: banning so-called semiautomatic assault weapons, regulating gun shows, opposing restrictions on lawsuits against gun makers.

Given all this agreement, it is not surprising that last year Democratic pollster Mark Penn produced surveys showing that if Democrats didn't show "respect for the 2nd Amendment and support gun safety," voters would presume that they were anti-gun. "The formula for Democrats," according to Penn, "is to say that they support the 2nd Amendment, but that they want tough laws that close loopholes.... This is something [Democrats] can run on and win on." Remember, Bill Clinton and Democratic strategists are on the record as saying that too strong a stand for gun control probably cost Al Gore the 2000 presidential elections.

But is the conversion real? The policy gurus for the Democratic presidential campaigns recently pitched their candidates at a think-tank breakfast in Washington. Given their candidates' stated support for the right of individuals to own guns, where do they draw the line on reasonable restrictions? Where do they stand on, say, the bans on handgun ownership in Chicago and the District of Columbia? Only Joe Lieberman's representative answered the question. The now-former Democratic candidate "would oppose an outright ban on handguns, and he is not afraid to say so." And the others? Dean's senior advisor, Maria Echaveste, refused to be pinned down because that would be giving in to "wedge issue" politics "as opposed to really talking about values that are fundamental to all candidates and to the American people." Representatives for Kerry, Edward and Clark would not respond.

The question was hardly theoretical. A couple of weeks ago, a U.S. District Court judge, a Democratic appointee, ruled in a District of Columbia case upholding the district's ban: "The 2nd Amendment does not confer an individual a right to possess firearms. Rather, the amendment's objective is to ensure the vitality of state militias."

Just last month, a man in Wilmette, Ill. -- where there is also a handgun ban -- used a gun to stop a criminal breaking into his home while his family slept. Police said that in wounding the perpetrator, the homeowner used justifiable force and that the handgun met state regulations for being registered and properly stored, but the man was charged with violating Wilmette's ban. He had previously called 911 to report a break-in at his home and had to wait more than 10 minutes for police, but in the second case, with the criminal staring at him, he didn't have the luxury of waiting that long again.

Supporting "reasonable restrictions" sounds moderate, but is an ownership ban "reasonable"? And if so, what exactly does guaranteeing an individual right really mean?

Polling may have convinced Democrats to change their rhetoric, but when only one Democratic presidential candidate -- one no longer running -- "would oppose an outright ban on handguns," their true goals must be as extreme as ever.

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