Article published June 15, 2004, at Outdoors Best.

The Democrats' Spin On Gun Control: Pushing for 'reasonable restrictions' is the key to getting the public's vote.

By John R. Lott Jr.

Have the Democrats really changed on gun control? Would it matter whether Senator John Kerry or President George Bush won the election this year? Democrats have spent much time and effort trying to alter their anti-gun image. They seem to believe that the answers to gun questions really matter for the campaign.

Out on the primary campaign trail, John Kerry talked about his boyhood hunting trips, and, before the Iowa caucus, Kerry even took time out to shoot a pheasant. Americans For Gun Safety, a gun-control organization, applauded Kerry's approach as "taking the gun issue to the political center."

Senator Kerry has tried hard to sound moderate on the gun issue and has gone so far as saying: "I believe that the Constitution, our laws and our customs protect law-abiding American citizens' right to own firearms. I believe that the right of gun ownership comes with responsibilities."

Curiously, all the Democratic presidential candidates made virtually identical statements about gun ownership being an individual right, but they all supported the same "reasonable restrictions" on gun ownership: banning so-called semiautomatic assault weapons, regulating gun shows, opposing restrictions on lawsuits against gunmakers.

Given all this sudden agreement, they either all had an epiphany or got the same political advice. It's not surprising to find that a Democratic pollster, Mark Penn, seems to be behind it. A year ago, he 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 loopholes. 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 election.

Other evidence suggests this conversion is just for show. The policy gurus for the Democratic presidential campaigns pitched their candidates at a think-tank breakfast in Washington in January at the American Enterprise Institute. They were explicitly asked where 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." 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." But representatives for Kerry, Edward and Clark would not respond.

Supporting "reasonable restrictions" sounds moderate, but is a ban on ownership "reasonable"? And if so, guaranteeing an individual right to own a gun doesn't really mean very much.

Kerry also has other political baggage on the issue of guns. For example, the Brady Campaign and its predecessor, Handgun Control, have given Kerry a perfect pro-control voting record over his career in the Senate. And when the Senate vote took place earlier this year on reining in the reckless lawsuits, Kerry made one of his very rare appearances since the beginning of 2003. Kerry skipped votes on extending unemployment insurance to prescription drugs to the military, but not the votes on extending the semiautomatic gun ban or the regulation of gun shows. Whatever his current rhetoric, Kerry is passionately in favor of gun control.

President Bush strongly supported reining in the reckless lawsuits against gunmakers. Unfortunately, however, he also--in principle-- supported extending the semiautomatic gun ban as well as regulating gun shows. But Bush is not wedded to those issues and strongly urged Senators to avoid sending him a bill for reining in reckless lawsuits with all those gun control amendments tacked on.

Bush's stance on guns is far from perfect and he has missed out on many opportunities to educate people about the myths involving guns. But there is a big difference between a president who improves things a little here and there and a convinced Democrat, who, like President Clinton, might use all the power of the office to pass laws and the bully pulpit to make people fearful of guns.

Those who care about gun rights may feel somewhat relaxed about the political environment these days, but we would all be in for a nasty surprise if Kerry were currently directing the resources of the presidency.

Remember the public service ads put out by the Clinton administration? They were all about young children dying from accidental gun deaths in the home and gave the impression of an epidemic of accidental gun deaths taking children's lives. Of course, despite the pictures and voices of young four- to eight-year-old children, there were only 31 accidental gun deaths for children under 10 in 1999. Yet, with these ads dominating the airwaves, the facts really didn't seem to matter.

If you are not convinced, imagine if Kerry had been President after 9/11 and had used the attacks to push for all sorts of new gun-control laws as a means of thwarting terrorist treats.

If Kerry wins the election, it will be the Clinton administration all over again. Whether it is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms or the inaccurate research put out by the Department of Justice, a Kerry presidency will make gun owners and those concerned about self-defense long for the good old days of the Bush administration.

John Lott Jr, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, is author of "More Guns, Less Crime" (University of Chicago Press, 2000) and "The Bias Against Guns" (Regnery, 2003).

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