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Article published Friday, February 6, 2004, at Los Angeles Times.

Gun Control Remains a Loaded Issue for Democratic Candidates:
The rhetoric may be toned down, but the aim remains the same.

By John R. Lott Jr. and Grover Norquist

John R. Lott Jr. is the author of "The Bias Against Guns" (Regnery, 2003). Grover Norquist is the president of Americans for Tax Reform.

Everyone seems to believe that Democrats have changed their minds on gun control. Out on the campaign trail, John Kerry and John Edwards and Wesley Clark talk about their boyhood hunting trips. Before the Iowa caucuses, Kerry even took time out to shoot a pheasant. The gun control organization Americans for Gun Safety calls it "taking the gun issue to the political center." The National Rifle Assn.'s leader, Wayne LaPierre, claims that "the center of the party saw that [advocating gun control] was a dead end for the Democrats." And Newsweek spread the word: "At least among the presidential candidates," said an article in January, "Democrats are moderating their stances" on gun control.

If one reads the candidates' public statements on the 2nd Amendment, they certainly seem moderate:

Kerry: "I believe that the Constitution, our laws and our customs protect law-abiding American citizens' right to own firearmsÖ. I believe that the right of gun ownership comes with responsibilities."

Howard Dean: "Law-abiding citizens should have the right to own firearms for hunting and other legitimate purposes, subject to reasonable restrictions related to gun safety."

Edwards: "I believe that the 2nd Amendment protects Americans' right to own firearms for purposes like hunting and personal protection, and that this right is subject to responsible limits like other rights."

The uniformity of views is striking, as are the "reasonable restrictions" the major Democratic candidates support: banning so-called semiautomatic assault weapons, regulating gun shows, opposing restrictions on lawsuits against gun makers.

Given all this agreement, it is not surprising that last year Democratic pollster Mark Penn produced surveys showing that if Democrats didn't show "respect for the 2nd Amendment and support gun safety," voters would presume that they were anti-gun. "The formula for Democrats," according to Penn, "is to say that they support the 2nd Amendment, but that they want tough laws that close loopholesÖ. This is something [Democrats] can run on and win on." Remember, Bill Clinton and Democratic strategists are on the record as saying that too strong a stand for gun control probably cost Al Gore the 2000 presidential elections.

But is the conversion real? The policy gurus for the Democratic presidential campaigns recently pitched their candidates at a think-tank breakfast in Washington. Given their candidates' stated support for the right of individuals to own guns, where do they draw the line on reasonable restrictions? Where do they stand on, say, the bans on handgun ownership in Chicago and the District of Columbia? Only Joe Lieberman's representative answered the question. The now-former Democratic candidate "would oppose an outright ban on handguns, and he is not afraid to say so." And the others? Dean's senior advisor, Maria Echaveste, refused to be pinned down because that would be giving in to "wedge issue" politics "as opposed to really talking about values that are fundamental to all candidates and to the American people." Representatives for Kerry, Edward and Clark would not respond.

The question was hardly theoretical. A couple of weeks ago, a U.S. District Court judge, a Democratic appointee, ruled in a District of Columbia case upholding the district's ban: "The 2nd Amendment does not confer an individual a right to possess firearms. Rather, the amendment's objective is to ensure the vitality of state militias."

Just last month, a man in Wilmette, Ill. — where there is also a handgun ban — used a gun to stop a criminal breaking into his home while his family slept. Police said that in wounding the perpetrator, the homeowner used justifiable force and that the handgun met state regulations for being registered and properly stored, but the man was charged with violating Wilmette's ban. He had previously called 911 to report a break-in at his home and had to wait more than 10 minutes for police, but in the second case, with the criminal staring at him, he didn't have the luxury of waiting that long again.

Supporting "reasonable restrictions" sounds moderate, but is an ownership ban "reasonable"? And if so, what exactly does guaranteeing an individual right really mean?

Polling may have convinced Democrats to change their rhetoric, but when only one Democratic presidential candidate — one no longer running — "would oppose an outright ban on handguns," their true goals must be as extreme as ever.


correction: The Wilmette, Ill. man apparently had let his state registration for his handgun lapse. The newspaper article that we had based the claim on was incorrect. However, the person is not being prosecuted for letting the registration expire, he is being prosecuted for violating the handgun ban.

Letters responding to the op-ed can be found here.


Johnlott.org (description of book, downloadable data sets, and discussions of previous controversies)

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Appalachian law school attack

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The Merced Pitchfork Killings and Vin Suprynowicz's quote

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Stanford Law Review

Mother Jones article


Craig Newmark

Eric Rasmusen

William Sjostrom

Dr. T's EconLinks.com

Interview with National Review Online

Lyonette Louis-Jacques's page on Firearms Regulation Worldwide

The End of Myth: An Interview with Dr. John Lott

Cold Comfort, Economist John Lott discusses the benefits of guns--and the hazards of pointing them out.

An interview with John R. Lott, Jr. author of More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws

Some data not found at www.johnlott.org:

Updated Media Analysis of Appalachian Law School Attack

Since the first news search was done additional news stories have been added to Nexis:

There are thus now 218 unique stories, and a total of 294 stories counting duplicates (the stories in yellow were duplicates): Excel file for general overview and specific stories. Explicit mentions of defensive gun use increase from 2 to 3 now.

Journal of Legal Studies paper on spoiled ballots during the 2000 Presidential Election

Data set from USA Today, STATA 7.0 data set

"Do" File for some of the basic regressions from the paper