In a major shift for the Democratic Party, its presidential candidates are backing away from gun control. The Washington Post reports that most Democratic candidates shun the subject, which was a major theme of Al Gore’s 2000 campaign. Gore called for licensing new handgun owners.
Howard Dean, for example, tells audiences of his National Rifle Association endorsement as Vermont governor, and says he would would leave most gun laws to the states. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, a gun control advocate, highlights support for law-abiding gun owners. “What you are seeing . . . is a sea change” from the 1990s, when President Bill Clinton and Gore championed several major gun laws — and paid a big political price for it, said NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre.
Several candidates said the gun issue contributed to Gore’s defeat in 2000 and could backfire on the party again next year if Democrats do not lose their anti-gun image.
The Post says the Democrats’ shift away from gun control is rooted more in politics than in a belief that gun laws do not help prevent crime and death. It started after the 1994 elections, when Democrats lost control of the House and watched such veterans as then-Speaker Thomas S. Foley (Wash.) be ousted after the Democratic-controlled House passed legislation making it illegal to “manufacture, transfer or possess” 19 semiautomatic firearms. The gun issue played a huge if not decisive role in ending the Democrats’ decades-long rule of the House that year. A key turning point came on election night 2000, when Gore lost West Virginia, Arkansas and his home state of Tennessee. Many of today’s candidates blame the gun issue, in part.
“The gun issue is the silent killer” of Democrats, said Deborah Barron of Americans for Gun Safety. The Democratic Leadership Council, which helped moderate the party’s image on other issues in the 1990s, is teaming with Americans for Gun Safety to do the same for gun control. Dean and most of his rivals have privately consulted with one or both of the groups on a new approach. Former American for Guns Safety spokesman Matt Bennett has signed on as communications director for retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark. The two groups are pushing a new mantra some of the candidates are adopting — “with gun rights come responsibility.” Al From, who runs the leadership council, said that Democrats can turn the gun issue into an advantage if they push for gun safety and rigorous enforcement of laws while reassuring voters they firmly support the Second Amendment.