- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2000

Gun control has largely fizzled as an election year issue despite strong efforts by congressional Democrats, activists say.

"On the gun issue, the reason that we are losing is that we are being out-organized," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Illinois Democrat and an advocate for stronger gun-control laws. "It's that simple… . "[Pro-gun activists] are organized and mobilized, so that is shame on us."

This time a year ago, congressional Democrats were confidently predicting they would use public outrage over a series of highly publicized school shootings to topple Republican control of the House. They took every opportunity to speak on the House floor or stage rallies around the Capitol to criticize Republican leaders for defeating a package of gun-control measures that passed the Senate but failed in the House.

Vice President Al Gore, meanwhile, began his presidential bid vowing to pass new gun-control laws including requiring all handgun owners to obtain a government license and promising to "stand up to" the National Rifle Association. Gun-control backers, led by a woman with links to the Clinton administration, organized the "Million Mom March" in May to put pressure on lawmakers to pass new gun laws.

But recent polls show the public has little taste for new gun laws and doesn't necessarily blame Republicans for the failure of the gun-control package on Capitol Hill. Mr. Gore has muted his attacks on guns as he struggles for votes in the Midwest and South, where hunters and gun owners are a major power.

"The bottom line is Democrats have figured out that the gun-control issue isn't as popular as they thought," said Rep. J.C. Watts, Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the Republican Conference.

Gun-control supporters held a press conference Thursday on Capitol Hill to premiere a pro-gun control documentary and "bring new energy to the gun violence debate."

"I think their admission of, if not defeat, … the need to regroup, is absolutely correct," said Rep. Bob Barr, Georgia Republican and a leading gun-rights activist. "They have misread how far they can push this issue with the American people."

Except for Mrs. Schakowsky, the organizers of the gun-control press conference were reluctant to say that their effort to inject the issue into the election has failed, but there was a clear tone of irritation in their remarks.

Mike Beard, president of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, blamed the media for the flagging gun-control campaign. He said many people are interested in the issue but are discouraged by the lack of attention it is getting. He cited some students he spoke to in North Carolina last week.

"They're a bit confused and quite angry about what's going on with the issue of gun violence," Mr. Barnes told reporters. "They're confused about why you in the media aren't covering the subject more, why you won't ask the candidates what is your stand on the issue of gun violence. They want more questions from you, they want to hear some responses from the candidates."

They hope to revive the issue with a series of rallies around the nation today, featuring members of the Clinton administration such as Attorney General Janet Reno and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo.

But pollsters and strategists say there is little chance gun control will emerge as a galvanizing campaign issue.

A series of polls over the past year show that voters are more excited about candidates who promise stronger enforcement of existing laws a major theme of Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush and of congressional Republicans over those who promise new gun laws a theme of Mr. Gore and congressional Democrats.

A Gallup poll, conducted in the first week of September, showed that 53 percent of voters prefer a candidate who supports stronger enforcement while 45 percent prefer a candidate who advocates new laws. In July, pollster John Zogby found that likely independent voters prefer the stronger enforcement approach, 69 percent to 25 percent.

Efforts to inject the issue into the election are further complicated by the unusual politics of gun control. Opinions on firearms tend to break down along regional lines or along urban/rural lines, rather than along neat party divisions.

Republican strategist Whit Ayres says those splits make it more difficult for Democrats to lay claim to gun control without offending large blocks of voters they need to win this razor-thin election. It also makes it more difficult to blame Republicans for the failure of the gun control bill on Capitol Hill since it was not a neatly partisan issue.

The man most responsible for the failure of that bill when it came up for a vote last year was Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan, the most senior Democrat in Congress and normally a stalwart ally of party leaders. He led a coalition of 45 Democrats many of them holders of powerful committee and leadership spots in opposing Democratic proposals to tighten regulations on gun show sales.

That dissident faction allied with pro-gun rights Republicans and blocked the remaining Democratic leadership.

"I don't think people are particularly interested in the subject," Mr. Dingell said last week as it became clear the gun bill would die.

"I haven't heard any vast groundswell by anybody to be taking guns away from law abiding citizens… . All you've got to do is take [guns] away from criminals," he said. "There are people who have quite a different idea on that around here."

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