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Published Friday, September 10, 2004, in Washington Times

Hunting for Votes

By John R. Lott, Jr.

    Will numerous photo-ops with guns, hunting trips and impassioned claims to support the Second Amendment as an individual right convince Americans that John Kerry shares their views on gun ownership? Just last Thursday, Mr. Kerry went on a widely publicized goose-hunting trip in the swing-state of Ohio. While Mr. Kerry's changing statements on the Iraq war or his position on hotly contested social issues such as abortion may be confusing (He says that that life starts at conception, but he supports partial-birth abortion), his claims on guns is even more difficult to understand.

    Earlier this year, Mr. Kerry said, "I believe that the Constitution, our laws and our customs protect law-abiding American citizens' right to own firearms." In September his campaign went as far as saying: "John Kerry's opponents are worried because he's the first Democratic candidate to support Second Amendment gun rights and to be an avid hunter.... The Republican Party and George Bush's campaign will stop at nothing to mislead voters about John Kerry's record." If you believe some of the responses from voters, Mr. Kerry's statements have convinced many that he supports gun rights.

    But according to those on both sides of the gun debate -- the Brady Campaign and the NRA -- Mr. Kerry has voted for every gun-control bill before the Senate over the last 18 years. He has consistently voted for restrictions, from banning semi-automatic guns to mandating storage rules. He refused to rein in the lawsuits against gun-makers.

    Mr. Kerry has hesitated little in claiming to be everyone's friend. This year he told outdoor writers about his commitment to hunters, claiming "I do a better job of fighting for the rights of sportsmen than George Bush does." Then, addressing the Humane Society, he bragged: "I've had my name on every piece of animal-rights legislation ever passed by Congress!" Indeed, Mr. Kerry has voted to ban hunting on federal land and to ban most center-fire rifle ammunition, including the rounds most commonly used by hunters.

    Of course, Mr. Kerry's claims about being "the first Democratic candidate to support Second Amendment gun rights and to be an avid hunter" are nonsense. John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton all have hunted. Mr. Clinton went hunting frequently while he was governor and John Kennedy hunted deer at least once. Johnson was famous for bringing politicians to his ranch and demanding that they go hunting as a test of their manhood. Mr. Carter was a genuinely avid hunter and tracked everything from possum to deer to duck; he starting hunting with his dad as a young child. Both Kennedy and Johnson were NRA members.

    Possibly, the Kerry campaign meant that he was the only Democratic candidate this year who supported the Second Amendment. But what was most striking this year was that all the Democratic presidential candidates had extremely uniform views on guns. In essentially the same language, all said they supported the Second Amendment as protecting the right of individuals to own guns, subject to "reasonable restrictions." 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 Mr. 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." It hasn't been lost on Mr. Kerry and other Democrats that Mr. Clinton and Democratic strategists believe that Al Gore's strong stand for gun control probably cost him states such as Tennessee -- and thus the 2000 presidential election.

    But even if this sudden conversion by Democrats were actually heartfelt, where is the line drawn on reasonable restrictions? What does it mean to the Democrats that the Second Amendment is an individual right? During January this year, policy gurus for the five leading Democratic presidential campaigns pitched their candidates at an American Enterprise Institute breakfast in Washington. Given their candidates' stated support for the right of individuals to own guns, I asked where the candidates stood on, say, the bans on handgun ownership in Chicago and the District of Columbia? Only Joe Lieberman's representative answered the question. Mr. Lieberman "would oppose an outright ban on handguns, and he is not afraid to say so." He challenged the other Democrats to join him. But Mr. Kerry's representative, as well as those for Howard Dean, John Edwards and Wesley Clark, all refused to respond.

    Polling may have convinced Mr. Kerry to change his rhetoric, but his voting record and his refusal to "oppose an outright ban on handguns" show his constant endorsements of the Second Amendment mean little.

         John R. Lott, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of "The Bias Against Guns." and "More Guns, Less Crime"


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