Worried about mercurial swing voters, both Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore have been glossing over their positions on guns. Whoever is elected president in two weeks will likely face four prickly decisions on the matter:
Bush spokesman Ray Sullivan says that he would expect his boss to reauthorize the assault weapons ban but indicates that, as president, Bush would oppose a waiting period for handgun purchases. As for the NRA's legislative priorities, Sullivan says that the campaign has "not contemplated those issues."
But despite all these big choices, when Gore was asked about the matter during the second presidential debate, he seemed to be a man without much of an opinion.
"I hope we can come back to the subject of education," he said, before trying to blur the substantial differences he has with Bush on the issue.
"First of all, let me say that the governor and I agree on some things where this subject is concerned," Gore said. "I will not do anything to affect the rights of hunters or sportsmen. I think that homeowners have to be respected and their right to have a gun if they wish to."
Actually, the gulf between the candidates on guns is larger than perhaps at any other time in American history. But both men are trying to pretend otherwise. For Bush, that's probably smart politics. In Gore's case, it's not so clear.
Gore campaign strategists argue that soft-pedaling gun control is necessary to win a narrow swath of swing voters in largely Midwestern tossup states. A Washington Post story on Friday seemed to back this up, reporting that "gun control is unpopular among many of the swing voters both campaigns are targeting in the final weeks of the campaign, particularly in battleground states -- such as Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania -- with a sizable bloc of hunters and other gun enthusiasts."
But one executive of a Washington organization concerned with this issue says that Gore is misreading these swing voters. If so, Gore's attempt to portray himself as having little opinion about the issue is not only disingenuous but politically stupid.
Though the executive, who did not wish to be named, agrees that Gore shouldn't be making his positions on guns a major talking point, he thinks that Gore's failure to portray Bush as an extremist on this issue has been a "missed opportunity."
The executive points to the fact that many swing states have rejected the NRA's position on concealed-carry laws, which allow individuals to carry loaded, concealed weapons in public. One of the first bills Bush signed into law as governor of Texas was a concealed-carry law. Bush went so far as to amend the law, the first of its kind in Texas in 125 years, to let licensees carry their loaded guns into churches, amusement parks and nursing homes.
This mindset, the executive argues, is foreign to the swing voters Bush and Gore are fighting for.
Gun law battles in key swing states attest to that idea. Despite NRA lobbying, there are no concealed-carry laws in Wisconsin, Ohio or Illinois. Recent attempts to weaken the requirements for concealed-carry licensees in Minnesota and Michigan have gone nowhere. A 1998 referendum on closing the "gun show loophole" in Florida passed with 72 percent support.
Last year in the bellwether state of Missouri, gun law advocates such as Handgun Control Inc. were outspent by the NRA more than 4-to-1 in a concealed-carry battle. Nevertheless, the NRA position, opposed by the late Gov. Mel Carnahan, lost.
Florida Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson, a Democrat, is using the issue in his Senate race against Republican Rep. Bill McCollum. It has also emerged as a major topic in the race for McCollum's House seat in Florida's fabled pocket of swing voters, the "I-4 corridor."
But it hasn't just been Democrats like Carnahan opposing these NRA-backed laws. Many Republican governors and senators in these states have butted heads with the NRA on its legislative agenda.
That's because, though a majority of the 50 states have some form of concealed weapon law, a majority of the eight states that don't are located in the Midwest. The 1999 Senate move to close the gun show loophole was, for instance, supported by Republican Sens. Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois and Ohio's Mike DeWine and George Voinovich.
Republican Govs. George Ryan of Illinois, Bob Taft of Ohio and Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin -- all of whom are currently barnstorming the country for Bush -- also were unanimous in their opposition to concealed-carry laws in their states.
These top Republicans' positions are thus at odds with those Bush brought to Texas. But Gore's only mention of this in all three debates came with an obscure and ineffective reference to a fairly damning study of Bush's concealed-carry law by the Los Angeles Times.
The study, conducted in early October, concluded that Texas "has licensed hundreds of people with prior criminal convictions -- including rape and armed robbery -- and histories of violence, psychological disorders and drug or alcohol problems."
Moderate Republican support for Bush seems especially inconsistent in light of evidence that Texas' concealed-carry law was enacted so cavalierly. The background check hasn't been established in a comprehensive manner, so felons have been able to get guns regardless of the law.
Since Bush signed the concealed-carry law in May 1995, two license holders have been convicted of murder, 23 have been charged with murder and 60 have been charged with rape or sexual assault. Just last Saturday, a license holder allegedly shot and killed two men in an argument.
Some Republicans seem to recognize the damage that media attention to Bush's position could cause him. Michigan Gov. John Engler kept a concealed-carry initiative off the state ballot this election to help Bush in Michigan. If Engler moved to keep the NRA position from being an albatross around Bush's neck, one might think that Gore would do the opposite.
Part of the reason for Gore's reticence on the issue is the Clinton administration's ineffective response on the NRA's successful pitch: We already have enough laws, the NRA says, we just need to enforce the ones we have.
In truth, prosecutions of gun law violators are up under Clinton -- both on the federal and on the state/local level -- and crime is down. But this has never been competently conveyed, and the NRA message has thus been able to seep into the minds of voters to the point that even Gore was regurgitating it during the debates.
Another reason Gore is hiding his position on guns is the fact that, in an effort to keep liberal supporters from defecting to lefty idealist Sen. Bill Bradley during the Democratic primaries, Gore proposed one of the more far-reaching (and possibly ill-conceived) gun laws known to presidential politics: photo-licensing of all new handgun purchasers.
In addition to supporting legislation like the Brady Bill or the ban on certain types of assault weapons or junk guns, Gore has expressed support for laws restricting gun buyers to one handgun a month. All this has allowed the leadership of the NRA to hyperbolically portray Gore as "want[ing] to ban handgun ownership in America."
And thus, the blue-collar workingmen of Michigan and Pennsylvania are bombarded with conflicting messages from the pro-Bush NRA and their pro-Gore unions.
But while Gore is smart to battle it out for these voters, what about the Midwestern suburban women who aren't supporting him in the numbers he needs? If Gore bothered to inform them about his rival's record on firearms, what would they make of Bush, who has never opposed any effort by the National Rifle Association, to the point that NRA vice president Kayne Robinson famously said, "If we win, we'll have a president where we work out of their office."
That's not a message that Bush wants out there.
When asked during the final presidential debate about the NRA boast, which was broadcast in an anti-Bush TV spot by Handgun Control Inc., Bush responded, "Somebody who doesn't want me to be president might have run that ad." He then repeated the more moderate-sounding parts of his firmly NRA-paced legislative agenda -- such as his election-year conversion on trigger locks.
But if Gore isn't going to tell Midwesterners, especially suburban women, about Bush's record, one wonders if they'll even find out about it. That is, until that national concealed-carry law coasts through the GOP-controlled House, Senate and White House in legislative year 2001.