The Los Angeles Times picked the morning of the first presidential debate, Oct. 3, to hit George W. Bush with a journalistic beanball. In a front-page story titled, “Felons get concealed gun licenses under Bush’s ‘tough’ law,” the paper detailed abuses of a Bush-backed Texas law that allowed citizens who could meet certain basic requirements no history of mental illness, no felony convictions and more to carry concealed weapons. It turned out that some felons had managed to get licenses despite the restrictions and that other licensees had committed crimes albeit not necessarily with guns including a couple that kidnapped a woman and held her as a sex slave before she escaped.
Though the paper made space for such sensational tales, it neglected to mention that as a group, Texas license holders are almost six times less likely to be arrested for violent offenses than the general public. It also failed to mention findings by Yale researcher John Lott linking concealed-carry laws to reduced levels of crime. Were Roger Clemens a journalist, he could not have knocked the presidential candidate down more effectively.
But if the paper’s reporters and gun-control proponents thought Mr. Bush’s Democratic foe, Al Gore, would take advantage of the story that night during the debate, they were soon disappointed. In fact Mr. Gore said nothing about gun control at all during the first debate. He mentioned it in subsequent debates to say only that he wouldn’t do anything to threaten hunters and other sportsmen and then changed the subject. Coming from a man who passionately declared as recently as April, “I think one of the lessons of [the school shootings at] Columbine is that we have to stand up to the [National Rifle Association] and the gun industry,” his subdued response must have seemed a missed opportunity to supporters.
The explanation is not that Mr. Gore had abruptly reverted to the National Rifle Association (NRA) supporter he once was as a congressman from Tennessee. It’s that he has discovered there is a fairly large segment of gun owners and sympathizers who don’t recognize themselves in the usual Beltway, media caricature of such people as weapons-crazed, high school student-shooting (and occasionally sexually depraved) criminals. They don’t think gun ownership per se is wrong. Worse, they and their friends tend to vote in fairly large numbers against those, like Mr. Gore, whom they regard as a threat to their gun rights.
One can understand the vice president’s surprise given the reporting of the mainstream media. In August, a New York Times reporter dropped in on Texas to cover the campaign and filed a wry account of the kind one would expect from a foreign correspondent dispatched to cover some quaint, backward little country. “One expectation of anyone running for governor of Texas,” he began, “is that he or she must grab a gun and shoot something.” Animals, beer cans, other people, whatever.
But less than a month later, the same New York Times discovered that Mr. Gore and his advisers were taking gun owners quite seriously. Many independent and Democratic Party voters in key swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Missouri, happen to be socially conservative, and, the paper reported ominously, “many own guns.” The same Los Angeles Times that treated Mr. Bush’s concealed-carry law as a horror reported two weeks later that a key Democratic constituency, union members, have been returning pro-Gore flyers to union organizers, saying, “I don’t want a man who’s going to take my gun.” Organized labor’s own polling, the paper reports, shows that about 40 percent of union members in the Midwest are sympathetic to the NRA. The Washington Post has noted reports saying that many and as many as half of the people attending enthusiastic NRA rallies recently in Michigan were wearing United Auto Worker jackets.
President Clinton jumped into the debate this week, charging that the NRA was, um, “lying” about the effects of gun control, but polling data suggest union members believe otherwise. According to a Tarrance Group survey on gun control, just 21 percent of respondents overall called for more gun laws versus 72 percent of respondents who thought there should be better enforcement of existing laws. That’s hardly an endorsement of gun control in general. But union members are, if anything, less enthusiastic about it. Of labor union members surveyed, just 15 percent agreed there should be more gun laws versus 81 percent who thought there should be better enforcement. Given that Mr. Gore has already offended organized labor with both a free-trade and environmentalist agenda that could threaten union jobs, he doesn’t want to aggravate the divisions in his coalition with a high-profile stance in favor of gun control.
Asked about his support for the Brady bill, Mr. Gore told debate moderator Jim Lehrer, “None of my proposals would have any effect on hunters or sportsmen or people who use rifles. They are aimed at the real problem. Let’s make our schools safe. Let’s make our neighborhoods safe. Let’s have a three-day waiting period, cooling off, so we can have a background check to make sure that criminals and people who really shouldn’t have guns don’t get them.
“But I’d like to use my remaining time on this exchange, Jim, to respond to this to an exchange that took place just a moment ago. Because a couple of times the governor has said that I am for a bigger government … “
The Los Angeles Times may have been aiming at Mr. Bush, but it was Mr. Gore who wound up ducking.