Gun Control Issues Move to Political Fore


Even as Vice President Al Gore last week triumphantly cast the tie-breaking vote on a crucial Democratic gun control proposal in the Senate, Texas Gov. George W. Bush was providing the perfect political foil. He had just embraced the gun lobby’s top state-level priority by announcing he would sign a bill barring cities from suing gun manufacturers.

Those contrasting events underscore one certainty that has emerged from the gun control debate swirling in Congress and around the country: Gun control is virtually guaranteed to be a marquee issue in next year’s election campaigns.

What’s less clear is whether the issue will be the slam-dunk political winner Democrats are hoping for, especially in congressional elections. Although the tide at the national level seems to be running against the National Rifle Assn., the picture in the states is more varied. The gun lobby remains a powerful force to be reckoned with, especially in the South and West.


“The middle ground is shifting, and I don’t know where it’s going to end up,” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff. “But is the NRA going to be eradicated as a political force? No.”

One reason Democrats managed to win Senate approval of several gun control measures last week was that, in deference to the continuing clout of the gun lobby, they aimed low. Democrats pushed modest control measures designed to keep guns out of the hands of children and criminals, nothing on par with the assault weapon curbs they put into law in the early 1990s.

Nor did the Senate bill include President Clinton’s most ambitious gun control proposals: reinstating a waiting period for handgun purchases and banning people from buying more than one gun a month.

The politics of gun control have been complex, and even contradictory, in recent years. In 1994, Republicans effectively used the assault weapon law against Democrats in conservative Southern and Western states. But in 1996, gun control was one of several polarizing “wedge” issues Clinton used to peel away moderate suburban voters from GOP nominee Bob Dole, especially in the North.

With the Littleton, Colo., shootings as the searing backdrop, many Democrats believe they will have the same opportunity in 2000.

Veteran Democratic media consultant Bob Squier, a senior consultant to Gore’s presidential campaign, maintains that in 2000 gun control will probably be a threshold issue, something voters will use to judge whether candidates comprehend the concerns parents have about their children’s safety.


“It’s almost like a password,” Squier said. “If you can’t get straight on guns, you might not be right on all of the other issues that people are concerned about in the schools.”

With 17 months to go before election day, it is hard to predict which issues will dominate as voters head to the polls in November 2000. But many analysts think the fallout from the Littleton high school massacre will be longer-lasting than most such episodes.

“I see Littleton as a pretty big thing because it has really galvanized opinions,” said Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. “It is really one of those things that cause people to pause and take stock.”

No one doubts that is why the Senate last week passed a bill with the first gun control measures in five years: new background check requirements for gun shows, a ban on juvenile possession of assault weapons, a safety lock requirement for handguns and a ban on importing high-capacity ammunition clips.

Hoping to ride that momentum, Democrats are pushing for gun control action in the House this week, despite GOP leaders’ desire to put off the debate until mid-June. Clinton, in his radio address Saturday, joined in demanding “immediate action” in the House.

Although insisting that his party will not “get stampeded into” acting on gun control, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) said Saturday on CNN that the issue is “on a fast track,” with hearings scheduled for Thursday.


Hyde expressed support for the Senate bill and predicted that the House will soon “pass a bill that I think will be satisfactory and the president will sign.”

Even so, the NRA is now moving a measure through the Michigan Legislature that would allow residents to carry concealed weapons. In Ohio, on the other hand, Republican Gov. Robert A. Taft threatened to veto a similar bill. Earlier this year, voters in Missouri denied a measure that would have allowed people to carry concealed weapons.

In California, gun control advocates won a big victory earlier this year when the Assembly approved one-gun-a-month legislation.

The principal gun issue in state legislatures this year has been efforts to preempt cities from filing lawsuits against gun manufacturers. Following the model of anti-tobacco lawsuits, several cities have filed litigation seeking to make gun manufacturers liable for the costs of gun violence.

Issue Prompts Party Lines to Be Crossed

Already this year, five states have approved NRA-backed bills barring such suits: Arkansas, Georgia, South Dakota, Montana and Oklahoma. In Montana and Oklahoma, the legislation received final approval after the Littleton incident. But in Colorado and Florida, preemption bills were shelved after the shootings.

The state where this debate has been most closely watched is Texas, because of its implications for the presidential campaign of Bush, the front-runner for the GOP nomination. Last week, the Texas House joined the state Senate in approving preemption legislation, and Bush indicated he would sign it. “I’m skeptical about lawsuits to try to settle social needs,” he said in a recent interview.


The mixed record in state legislatures is a testament to the regional, as well as party-line, nature of the gun control issue. A senior GOP aide estimated that 30 House members from each party cross party lines on gun control. In the Senate’s pivotal vote last week to require buyer background checks at gun shows, most of the six Republicans who defied the NRA were from the Midwest, where pro-gun sentiment is not especially strong. The one Democrat to vote with the NRA came from Montana.

Democrats clearly hope to use last week’s votes against incumbent Republicans up for reelection in swing states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Minnesota.

“These are states where it’s very difficult to explain your opposition to reasonable gun control,” said Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

But the risk for Democrats is that, in making gun control a national issue, they alienate gun owners and cause trouble for Democrats from rural, pro-gun regions.

Point of Contention for 2000 Candidates

Among Republican presidential contenders, Elizabeth Hanford Dole has been the most direct in urging additional gun control measures since Littleton. But most have resisted such conclusions; immediately after the shootings, former Vice President Dan Quayle said, “I hope we don’t try to use this as an excuse to go and take away guns.” And in a speech Saturday to the GOP state convention in Georgia, publisher Steve Forbes sharply criticized Clinton’s record in enforcing existing gun laws.

The events of last week conspired to raise Gore’s profile as a gun control supporter, even as they underscored Bush’s receptivity to the arguments against suing firearm manufacturers. That widening gulf virtually guarantees that the issue will flare if the two find themselves facing off in the 2000 general election.


Bush’s decision to sign the Texas preemption bill increased the odds that his record on gun control will be a significant issue in his presidential campaign. In 1995, he signed legislation allowing Texans to carry concealed weapons.

Although Bush has since made some efforts to moderate his position on gun control, many Democrats believe his overall record on guns could be a key vulnerability.

“The problem he has with guns is the problem he has with choice [concerning abortion],” Squier said. “These are big life-and-death issues. . . . In both cases, he is not on the side that the country is on.”

Times political writer Mark Z. Barabak contributed to this story.