As governor of Vermont, a state with loose gun laws, Howard Dean earned a reputation as an opponent of gun control and worked closely with the National Rifle Association, a requirement for survival in his state’s politics, the Washington Post reports. He feuded with some gun rights advocates, who saw him as unwilling to take strong stands on firearms issues, attend candidate forums, or respond to questionnaires. The Burlington Free Press described his support for gun rights while governor as “more platonic than passionate.” He received the NRA’s backing and A rating in eight consecutive elections.
Now Dean is walking a fine line on guns, trying to retain liberal primary voters while winning support among conservatives as he looks to the general election. “It allows him to show he’s not a doctrinaire liberal on all issues, which is a real asset, as long as it doesn’t alienate his base,” said Robert J. Spitzer, author of “The Politics of Gun Control.”
Dean favors strict enforcement of federal gun laws but says further legislation should be left to the states to decide, an approach one NRA official has called “schizophrenic.” Dean has said he believes that Al Gore would be president had he not so strongly supported gun control in the 2000 campaign, and that Dean’s middle-ground approach makes him the most electable Democrat in the field. For too long, he says, Democrats have lost votes in southern and western states over issues of “race, guns, God and gays.” “Howard Dean is doing what he has always done. He never moved in lock step with any one group,” said Vermont state Sen. Matt Dunne (D). “His record on guns was consistent with that.”
On a candidate questionnaire Gun Owners of Vermont sent out in 1998, Dean left four of the five questions blank, scrawling at the bottom: “I support leaving the gun laws in Vermont alone as I have for the past 14 years. I, as always, reserve the right to change my position if compelling evidence warrants it. I have not seen such evidence in the past 14 years.”
As momentum grew for stricter gun laws after the Colorado’s Columbine High School shootings in 1999, Dean said, “The remedy is not simply in the law, it’s mostly in the community and in the home.” In 2000, he signed the only major gun bill of his tenure, which banned firearms on school grounds. The measure was written to make it more palatable to the NRA, but some gun rights advocates said Dean’s support for it contradicted earlier statements.