Gunning for the center

George W. Bush is trying to modify and moderate his perceived positions on guns.

Published May 17, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

On May 3, Texas Gov. George W. Bush
alleged that Vice President Al Gore was once a member
of the National Rifle Association. The
Gore camp said it could find no evidence
that Bush's claim was true, and NRA
spokesman Bill Powers said that he, too,
could find no record of Gore's
membership in the organization's
microfiche, but the next day Bush
repeated the charge. Pressed by
reporters as to how he could make such a
claim, Bush said, "He might have been a
member, let's put it that way."

When asked who told him about Gore's
"membership," Bush said, "a little

Gore may, in fact, have been a member of
the NRA at one point. (One staffer allows
that due to the NRA's "aggressive
recruiting," the organization might have
automatically signed him up when he was
a generally pro-gun Tennessee
congressman.) But it certainly seems odd
that Bush -- whose election as Texas
governor was greeted with a banner
headline in the NRA magazine that "Gun
Owners Win Big" -- would bring it

"I think the TSRA [Texas State Rifle
Association] believes that Gov. Bush has
taken a pretty fair and balanced stance
on the gun issue," says Ralph Talbot of
San Antonio, the president of the
37,000-member TSRA. "Bush has done a
pretty good job in dealing with the
political pressures brought to bear by
the anti-gun folks in Texas. Gov. Bush
doesn't want to antagonize the

But Texas, of course, is not the
entirety of America. Pro-gun positions
that may be politically popular in Texas
may be detrimental to a candidate
running for president. Thus, says Joe
Sudbay, legislative director for Handgun
Control Inc., we see Bush grappling,
somewhat disconcertingly, to run to the
political middle on the issue and tar
Gore as a former NRA member, evidence be
damned. "It's pretty clear that the
governor is trying to run from his
pro-gun record," Sudbay said. "They must
understand now that the American people
overwhelmingly don't share that view."

The Bush press department calls Gore a
liar every chance it gets, even sending
out a weekly "Gore Report" on the vice
president's "adventures with the truth."
Gore and his folks do, indeed, have a
number of misadventures when it comes to
truth telling. But the Bushies, led by
the governor himself, are modest about
their ability to prevaricate. That
"little birdie" whispering various
untruths about guns into Bush's ear has
been an awfully busy little creature as
of late.

Indeed, it should hardly be worth going
into the many ways in which Bush lands
squarely on the side of the National
Rifle Association on the issue of gun
laws. Whether you agree with him or not,
that's where he is, that's where he's
been and no doubt that's where he will
continue to be. Voters will have a clear
choice between Gore, a candidate who
supports gun laws written by Sarah
Brady, and Bush, who stands with NRA
president Charlton Heston.

In fact, as has been widely reported,
NRA first vice president Kayne Robinson
told an
audience of NRA members
this year, "If we win, we'll have a
president ... where we work out of their

If you believe in the world according to
Robinson -- that there are already more
than enough gun laws; that the Clinton
administration needs to enforce the laws
already on the books; that this is all
just a slippery slope leading to the
government banning guns outright -- then
Bush is your man. If you think that
society will become safer if there are
more people carrying concealed handguns,
then Bush is the clear choice.

"He's been open-minded, he's been
willing to talk to the NRA and the TSRA
representatives in Austin over firearms
issues since he's been governor," says
Talbot. "He has not been against our
issues," says Talbot. "He was very
supportive of the concealed carry law"
that passed in 1995.

Intriguingly, Talbot is sensitive to
anyone portraying Bush as a friend of
the NRA and TSRA. "I don't want to paint
Gov. Bush as being in the NRA's pocket
or TSRA's pocket -- that's not true at
all. He's not. I think he's a fair man.
He's not an extremist." Asked if he can
name a time when Bush disagreed or
worked against the NRA or TSRA, Talbot
says, "I can't think of any in recent
time." But, he reiterates, "I don't
want to paint Gov. Bush into a corner
that doesn't give him any way out."

Talbot isn't the only one so sensitive
to this issue. The person most reluctant
to link Bush directly to the NRA agenda
is Bush himself, trying instead to paint
himself as a moderate on gun control.

On Friday, right before the Million Mom
March in favor of more gun laws, Bush
came out in favor of giving away
thousands of trigger locks for anyone
who wants one, an apparatus he has
pooh-pooohed in the past. He also did
and said absolutely nothing last year
when two pieces of state legislation --
both requiring that guns be sold with
trigger locks -- were introduced.

"That's a huge change for him," says
Sudbay. "It seems to be a very crass
political move timed in conjunction with
the Million Mom March and also to
diminish his very pro-gun record."

"I think he saw himself being pushed out
on one of the wings when he got
embroiled with [Sen. John] McCain and he
saw that his best way to regain support
was to shift back to the center," says
TSRA's Talbot.

Why would Bush try to gloss over his
previous strong support for the NRA's
agenda? Obviously for votes. One of the
few polls taken in the last few months
that had Gore leading was conducted by
ABC News immediately after Robinson's
comments, showing Gore with an edge, 46
percent to 38 percent. Clearly, Bush is
worried, otherwise he wouldn't have had
his handlers rush to book him on NBC's
"Today" show to announce his new
free-trigger-lock entitlement program
for gun owners.

And Bush's feigned moderation on the
issue appears to be working. A New York
Times poll published Tuesday showed Bush
and Gore statistically tied on who those polled agree with regarding
gun control, though Americans
consistently and overwhelmingly support
gun laws that Bush opposes. But Bush's
political maneuvering has led to some of
his own adventures with the truth.

Notified that President Clinton would be
talking about gun violence on "Good
Morning America" last Friday, Bush
quickly scheduled an appearance on
"Today" where, in reference to the
Million Mom March, he said, "Like
them, I'm concerned about gun violence
in our society."

Bush then announced that he was going to
spend $1 million a year in Texas to give
away trigger locks, and that he would,
as president, preside over a five-year
$325 million "Project ChildSafe" that
would make safety locks available for
each of the estimated 65 million
handguns in the United

"This is a proactive approach that will
help many parents make their homes
safer," Bush said, which makes one
wonder why he didn't propose it in any
of his previous six years as governor.
Or why he thinks trigger locks should
still be "voluntary." According to
Republican pollster Linda DiVall, an
April poll of voters indicated that
approximately 66 percent support the
mandatory use of trigger locks on
handguns. In March, New York Gov.
George Pataki proposed mandatory trigger
locks in his state. If trigger locks on
guns will "make their homes safer," why
not make it mandatory to use them?

"His trigger-lock giveaway certainly can
be contrasted with his comments on the
issue during the L.A. Times/CNN debate,
when he was telling people to fear the
'trigger-lock police,'" notes Sudbay. On
March 2, during the last GOP
presidential debate, Bush said that he
didn't "mind trigger locks being sold
... but the question is, How do we
enforce it? Are we going to have
trigger-lock police knock on people's
doors saying, 'Show me your lock?'"

"The trigger-lock issue, I've got no
problem with it," says TSRA's Talbot. "I
guess what we're concerned about,
firearms owners, is not the trigger-lock
issue, it's what comes beyond the
trigger lock, it's the trigger-lock

So even when Bush is attempting to seem
moderate on the gun issue, he still
diverges not at all from the gun lobby's

The fact that Bush would ape NRA
rhetoric about "trigger-lock police" is
no surprise, Sudbay says. And he wonders
about the efficacy of Bush's new
trigger-lock program. "I haven't seen
any specifics about it, and the devil is
sometimes in the details," he says.

In 1995, for instance, Bush signed a
"child access prevention," or CAP, law
making parents responsible for keeping
loaded guns safely away from their kids.
"But when you read it," Sudbay says,
"you see the specific provision in the
law saying schools should start
gun-safety programs modeled on the NRA
program 'Eddie the Eagle.'"

Sudbay notes that the "Eddie the Eagle"
program has been criticized as "basically an
indoctrination program for kids and
guns. It claims to be about gun safety
but basically it's a marketing program
for kids and guns. Also, it puts all the
responsibility on the kids and doesn't
put any responsibility on the adults."

Bush is fond of telling reporters to
check his record. Fair enough. Bush has
one of the most pro-NRA records of any
governor in the nation. He has
understandably been trying to gloss over
that fact, but it's indisputable.

Instead, his campaign offers bogus
attempts to seem
moderate on the issue. His gun
policy, outlined on his Web site, reads
like a list of NRA-approved talking

For example, Bush's spokespeople are
quick to point out that Bush's gun
platform breaks from the NRA by
supporting "banning juveniles from
possession of semi-automatic 'assault'
weapons, ... increasing the minimum age
for possession of a handgun from 18 to
21 ... [and] banning the importation of
foreign made, 'high-capacity' ammunition

"It appears to me that what George W.
Bush's people have done is to take a
look at the federal law and say that
we'll just apply these across the board
to juveniles," says Talbot. "But these
[three] laws are already on the books,
and I think Gov. Bush realizes that;
he's a pretty astute man."

Even so, Bush's commitment to passing
these laws seems tenuous. Bush has never
taken one step in Texas to get any of
these three passed as law. Texas, in
fact, is one of the only states in the
nation with no minimum age for handgun

Bush was a little more active when it
came to working with the NRA. In
1995, Bush supported a
carrying-a-concealed-weapon (CCW) law,
which allows Texans to carry loaded guns
with them at all times as long as they
have a license.

"It will make Texas a safer place," Bush
said at the time. "I wouldn't be signing
this if I thought it made Texas a more
dangerous place. I don't think it does."

According to a 1999 study by the Violence
Policy Center, however, since Bush's CCW
law took effect, an average of two Texas
CCW licensees have been arrested every

Bush's "safer" Texas now included individuals allowed to carry loaded, concealed weapons who were arrested for, as of March 1999, 15 charges of murder or attempted murder, six charges of kidnapping or false imprisonment, 28 charges of rape or sexual assault, 103 charges of assault or aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, 442 charges of DWI, 30 charges of indecency with children and 70 charges of sexual misconduct.

Interestingly, even though Bush's
priority on his gun agenda is the NRA's
effective mantra calling for "stronger
enforcement of existing gun laws," he
has done nothing to prosecute the 800
convicted felons who illegally applied
for Texas CCW licenses.

When it comes to reconsidering the Texas
CCW law, Bush has gone in the other
direction. The 1995 CCW law prohibited
Texans from carrying concealed handguns
into official sporting events, bars,
correctional facilities, amusement
parks, hospitals, nursing homes and
"established places of worship."

So Bush went back in 1997 and extended
the law so the CCW holders could carry
their guns into places like churches,
amusement parks and rest homes.

On "Today," Katie Couric asked Bush why
he signed the 1997 Texas bill
specifically removing hospitals,
churches and amusement parks from the
list of places CCW holders were
prohibited from bringing their guns.
"You think it's perfectly all right for
people to carry concealed weapons into
churches across the country?" Couric

"No, no, no," Bush said to Couric, "but
churches ... no, I didn't say that.
Churches in our state of Texas do not
let ... if they don't want somebody
doing that, it won't happen. The reason
that part of the bill was passed is
because preachers wanted to be able to
carry a concealed weapon in their own
home on church grounds. But people
aren't carrying guns in churches in

It is true that Bush didn't "say that"
-- but he did sign it into law.

If Texas churches "don't want somebody
doing that," they need to post a sign --
in both English and Spanish, letters in
block print and at least one-inch high
-- saying, "Pursuant to Section 30.06,
Penal Code (trespass by holder of
license to carry a concealed handgun), a
person licensed under Article
4413(29ee), Revised Statute (concealed
handgun law), may not enter this
property with a concealed handgun."

Bush has put the burden on the church;
it is assumed that preachers and
parishioners should have no problem with
loaded concealed handguns in the pews.
As for people not carrying guns into
churches in Texas, that's certainly open to debate, particularly
at the Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort
Worth where seven people were killed in

But why would Bush sign a law allowing
CCW holders to carry their guns into
churches if he didn't think people were
"carrying guns in churches in Texas"?
Wasn't that the idea?

Hours after Bush tried to paint over his
opposition to mandatory trigger locks by
giving a bunch away and stammering when
pinned down to talk about his record, he
sent campaign spokeswoman Mindy Tucker
onto CNN to debate Gore spokesman Chris
Lehane on the issue.

Tucker discussed the governor's
come-to-Jesus moment on trigger locks,
and her belief that voters "know about
his record here in Texas of passing
tough laws against gun violence."

"Time and time again, the governor has
sided with the gun industry over the
safety of our children, that's been his
record in Texas," Lehane said. "I indeed
hope that Mindy is right and people do
find out about his record in Texas. He
supported overturning a 125-year law to
allow people to carry concealed weapons.
He went back two years later and amended
that law to make it easier to bring guns
into churches. The governor is just
fundamentally out of step with
mainstream America when it comes to
gun-safety issues."

"Well, Chris has a lot of rhetoric, but
usually has the facts wrong, and again
in this case, Governor Bush has a strong
record here in Texas, and in fact the
law that he talked about President
Clinton actually said was a good idea on
Friday," Tucker said.

A Bush press aide trying to seek
political cover on the gun issue through
a Clinton endorsement -- how

When asked what Clinton thought about
Bush's new trigger-lock giveaway,
Clinton did indeed, say, "I think it's a
good idea," but that was immediately
followed by his question: "But why -- why
is he doing that?

"You have to understand what's going on
here," Clinton said, answering his own
question in his inimitable fashion.
"There was a report in the newspaper
last week that a lobbyist from the NRA
said they would have an office in the
White House if Governor Bush was

Bush, Clinton said, "wants to move away
from that image. He wants people not to
think that he won't do anything --
basically that the NRA will control
policy on this. Which they will if he
wins. And if he comes out and gives away
gun trigger locks, then he doesn't have
to explain why we're still importing
large-capacity ammunition clips and why
he doesn't want to close the gun-show

That's something that Bush's "little
birdie" forgot to mention.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

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