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.
The Bush campaign declined to comment on whether it was aware of concerns or political discontent among gun-rights activists, but it plans to appeal for votes during the NRA convention. Vice President Dick Cheney is scheduled to give the keynote address Saturday night.
Bush campaign spokesman Scott Stanzel said the president planned to launch a grass-roots outreach effort aimed at gun owners nationwide -- similar to one in 2000. And Bush recently invited officials from the NRA, Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever to tour his ranch near Crawford, Texas.
“The Patriot Act is giving law enforcement officials the same tools they have to fight organized crime to fight terrorism,” Stanzel said. He added: “President Bush has been a long, consistent 2nd Amendment supporter.”
About 75 million to 80 million Americans own firearms, with at least one gun in roughly 40% of households nationwide, according to several studies by gun-rights and gun-control organizations. Though most gun owners cast their ballots based on a range of concerns, some estimates put as high as 10 million the number who vote mainly based on gun-rights issues.
Large percentages of gun owners live in such swing states as Oregon, Arizona, Missouri, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Tennessee and Arkansas. And their participation is likely to be vital to both parties in what is expected to be a close election.
Gun groups are known for their political activism mainly in local and congressional races, but their support for or opposition to candidates can have broad reach. During the 2000 campaign, the NRA spent nearly $18 million to back mostly Republican candidates, making it one of the party’s five largest independent donors. It spent more than $1 million on ads to support Bush and to attack Gore.
Many observers credited the effort with tilting the election to Bush, mainly by persuading blue-collar, gun-owning Democrats to abandon Gore in such swing states as West Virginia and Tennessee.
This year state and regional gun groups are openly attacking not only Bush, but other Republicans they view as turncoats.
The Oregon Firearms Federation, for example, has grown increasingly hostile toward Republican Sen. Gordon Smith, who joined Bush in backing the renewal of the Assault Weapons Ban. In direct mail and e-mail campaigns, the group has accused Smith of voting against gun rights 80% of the time and using Bush as “cover” for his backing of the ban.
“The people we target the most are the people who pretend to be our friends,” said the federation’s executive director, Kevin Starrett. “Those kind of guys are the ones we want our people to know about the most.”
Although Bush backed efforts to halt liability suits against manufacturers, the legislation was rejected by the Senate in March and was viewed by some state gun groups as an NRA-driven disaster. The lead sponsor of the bill, Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), who is also an NRA board member, was forced to encourage fellow lawmakers to vote against it after gun-control proponents tacked on amendments that gun-rights groups opposed.
One key amendment would have extended the Assault Weapons Ban, which has a “sunset” clause that is due to expire in September. The ban outlawed the manufacture and sale of some assault-style semiautomatic weapons as well as large-capacity ammunition magazines. Many gun owners viewed its passage a decade ago as the single greatest infringement of the 2nd Amendment in modern times.
Bush has expressed support for the ban’s extension for another decade, but gun groups say his advisors hinted to them that he backed it only because he knows it will almost certainly die in a Republican-controlled Congress.
Kerry flew back from the campaign trail to vote for the extension of the ban, but was warned along with other Democrats about the potential costs of alienating gun owners.
“Silence on the gun issue only hardens voters’ negative perceptions of Democrats,” said a memo from former Gore aide Doug Hattaway and others, which was handed out to Senate Democrats.
“To earn increased gun owner trust, Democrats must pro-actively define their current positions on guns -- as Second Amendment Democrats, who back tough enforcement of all federal gun laws and support centrist gun policies,” the memo said.
Though widely viewed as an opponent by gun-rights group, Kerry nevertheless has gone out of his way on the campaign trail to note that he is a gun owner and hunter, pulling out a shotgun and heading off to hunt pheasant in Iowa during one photo opportunity.
His overtures as a hunter have done little to mollify activists, who note that the 2nd Amendment was not written to guarantee hunting rights, and remember well that Clinton also was a gun owner and hunter.
Kerry does not expect to win most of the gun vote, but his challenge is to keep moderate gun-owning Democrats from coalescing around Bush. He may find his efforts aided by what some observers say has been increased infighting among gun-rights advocates.
Though proponents of gun control frequently characterize the NRA as a radical far-right organization, many state and regional groups view it as too moderate, and accuse the NRA of acquiescing on fundamental tenets of the movement in the interest of political expediency.
Such groups are nearly as irked by the NRA for its support of Bush -- “squishy” though it may be, in the words of one official -- as with Bush himself.
Although they traditionally back Republicans, several state and regional gun-rights groups -- driven especially by opposition to the Patriot Act and other post-Sept. 11 measures -- have grown so disillusioned by the Bush administration that they are openly discussing the potential benefits of voting for Kerry.
A Democrat in the White House to face down a Republican-controlled Congress might, the argument goes, be the best way to halt what they view as a raid on civil liberties.
“Had the Clinton administration proposed the Patriot Act, which is a real scary thing for gun owners, the Republican-controlled Congress would have been apoplectic,” said Starrett of the Oregon Firearms Federation.
“The Republicans aren’t the saviors of gun owners. Sometimes we’re better off when those two gangs are divided,” he said.
David Kopel, research director at the Independence Institute, a conservative think tank in Golden, Colo., said gun owners who are disenchanted with Bush should look back at Clinton, ahead to a potential Kerry administration, and work on Bush’s reelection campaign.
“The complaint among some of the activists [this season] is that George Bush hasn’t done enough for us affirmatively,” Kopel said.
“But gun owners on the whole tend to advance and win at the state level whenever the president is not actively against them. I’ll take a Republican who mostly leaves us alone any day over a Democrat who would mobilize the nation against us.”