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Gun-Shy Democrats Are Giving the NRA Room to Maneuver

Times Staff Writers

These are tough times for the gun control crowd.

After 13 people were shot to death in 1999 at Columbine High School in Colorado, Democrats led a stampede in Congress to pass tougher gun laws. Now some of those same politicians are lining up with the National Rifle Assn. to soften gun regulations.

Congress has voted this year to require speedier destruction of gun purchase records; the renewal of a 1994 law banning assault weapons faces an uphill battle; and on Wednesday, the Senate debated a measure shielding gun makers and sellers from lawsuits by gunshot victims.

Why the shift?

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“Fear,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), lead author of the assault weapons ban. “When I came to Washington, everybody said: ‘You’ve got to watch out for Big Business and Big Oil. They’re the big lobbies.’ Wrong. It’s Big Guns.”

Sens. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, the leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, have supported gun control in the past. But they are not raising the issue on the campaign trail this year.

Many Democrats think Al Gore, the Democratic nominee in 2000, lost support in some pivotal rural states because he supported tough gun control. After the 2000 election, “common wisdom in the Democratic Party was that you had better not talk about guns,” said Deborah Barron, spokeswoman for Americans for Gun Safety.

So Kerry, to connect with the gun lobby, frequently talks about his experience as a hunter. Edwards, when asked about gun issues, always begins his answer by saying that he supports the 2nd Amendment and that he believes in the right to bear arms.

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Meanwhile, the NRA has moved from defense to offense.

It is supporting the gun liability bill -- which already has passed the House and is backed not only by President Bush and most Senate Republicans, but also by at least 10 Democrats, including Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

“You can’t deny that there has been a shift” by Democrats, said Kristen Rand, legislative director for the Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit organization that advocates gun control. “We can’t deny the fact that a lot of [lawmakers] don’t think being out front on gun issues is helpful to them. The NRA is very effective at their grass-roots organizing.”

Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president, said Daschle’s support of the gun liability measure reflected his party’s new stance. The Democratic leadership, LaPierre said, “decided the gun control issue was a dead end.”

Daschle is also facing a potentially tough reelection race in his home state, where gun control could become an issue.

Sarah Brady -- whose husband, James, was disabled in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan -- said she thought that Democrats were “misguided” in taking a more moderate approach on guns. The issue, in her opinion, did not hurt the party in 2000.

But a shift by Democrats may not be a bad thing for gun control advocates, said Robert Ricker, a former NRA official who now consults with gun control groups.

“Some of the tactics that have been used in the past by the gun control groups have come back to hurt them in areas like the South,” Ricker said. “The idea of really seizing that middle ground, of not going to the extremes on the issue,” is being followed by the party now.

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Opponents of the gun liability measure hope to attach amendments that would strengthen gun laws. One would extend the nearly decade-old federal ban on assault weapons, due to expire in September; another would require background checks for purchases at gun shows.

The bill, dubbed the “Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act,” has drawn opposition from the families of gunshot victims, as well as police chiefs and the mayors of Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and other big cities. Feinstein said the bill would “essentially give the gun industry blanket immunity from civil liability cases -- an immunity that no other industry has.”

“We find ourselves today on the cusp of yet another NRA victory,” Feinstein added. “And let me be clear -- not a victory for NRA members, most of whom are law-abiding gun owners who might someday benefit from the ability to sue a manufacturer that sold them a defective or dangerous gun. No, this will be a victory only for the cynical leaders of the NRA that have steadfastly turned their organization into a political powerhouse, unconcerned with the true needs of its members.”

Times staff writer Nick Anderson contributed to this report.


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