Good timing. Just three weeks ago, the manufacturer of the AR-15 Bushmaster rifle found in the van of accused killer Buford Furrow resigned suddenly and unexpectedly as presidential candidate George W. Bush's chief Maine fund-raiser.
Richard E. Dyke, the 65-year-old owner of Bushmaster Firearms in Windham, Maine, had given the Texas governor the maximum individual contribution allowed by law, $1,000, and had raised tens of thousands more for his campaign. And more was to come.
That was the plan, anyway, until July 21, when a reporter called the Bush 2000 campaign to ask about Dyke's role in Bush's road to the White House. Within a day, Dyke had resigned from the campaign. "I just don't want to be any baggage," Dyke told the Associated Press. "Young Bush doesn't have to justify why I was trying to help him."
Bushmaster Firearms, currently in its 20th year, manufactures automatic rifles not unlike military M-16s. Bushmaster promotional materials brag that the company is "producing the highest quality, most accurate AR15/M16 type firearms sold today -- by a long shot!" Bushmaster sells guns modified slightly so as to comply with the letter -- if not the spirit -- of the 1994 assault weapons ban.
And as the ban only outlawed the manufacture and importation of certain assault weapons, and not the sale of such guns already manufactured, Bushmaster continues to sell banned weapons, like the one found in Furrow's van. Its catalog refers to the assault weapons ban as "infamous."
Bushmaster Firearms was sued by Los Angeles police officer Martin Whitfield after he and several other officers were injured in a 1997 bank robbery shootout in which the LAPD was seriously outgunned by robbers packing assault weapons.
Neither Dyke nor the Bush campaign returned calls for comment.
Vice President Al Gore has already begun hammering Bush for his opposition to gun control. Though neither man has his party's nomination, the GOP front-runner can't be happy that early in the campaign season, gun control is emerging as a hot-button issue in the race. If anti-gun voters emerge as a bloc in the 2000 election, Bush has a lot to feel vulnerable about.
In his race against then-Texas Gov. Ann Richards, Bush pledged to sign a law allowing Texans to carry concealed weapons -- a law Richards had previously vetoed. Then, as governor, Bush signed the concealed-carry law, and also signed a bill denying Texas cities the ability to sue gun manufacturers.
Bush has also said that, as president, he would have vetoed a bill mandating a 24-hour waiting period for firearms purchased at gun shows. The House defeated the bill anyway.
Bush has as of late tried to put a more moderate face on his anti-gun-control stance. The day after the Columbine shooting, Bush held a press conference and claimed to support closing the gun-show loophole, which allows anyone at a gun show with cash on hand to buy almost any gun without a background check.
Then, Texas gun-control advocates say, he began to backpedal, first arguing that the loophole should be closed at the federal level, and then claiming to find the Texas gun show loophole bill flawed. "He did nothing to make that a law," says Nina Butts, the Austin lobbyist for Texans Against Gun Violence. "And as a result, Texas gun shows are still a fabulous source of guns for kids and criminals."
"Gov. Bush has promoted rather than prevented gun violence in Texas," Butts argued. "He signed a law to let ordinary citizens carry guns and half a dozen of them have killed people -- and not in self defense. He has not cooperated with the police chiefs in the seven largest cities here, who very specifically asked the Legislature to crack down on gun shows."
It's odd that Bush would want to distance himself from an industry he has heretofore supported wholeheartedly -- though such a move indicates Bush's awareness that he's no longer only seeking the vote of Texans. "It doesn't look good to have a gun manufacturer as a fund-raiser, but there's no question that Bush is very close to the gun industry and the NRA," Butts said. "He has done the NRA's bidding in Texas."
After Dyke resigned, the Democratic National Committee began trying to make political hay of the issue. "Bush should prove that his staunch opposition to reasonable gun safety laws has nothing to do with who funds his campaign," DNC National Chairman Joe Andrew said.
"It all comes down to a question of Bush's judgment," added DNC General Chairman Roy Romer. "He claims he wants to protect all of America's children, but time after time, he sides with the gun lobby. Why, at a time when legislators in Congress and in Texas were considering gun safety legislation to protect children, did Bush select an assault weapons dealer as one of his top fund-raisers?"