Thursday, October 16, 2003

The perception that Democrats are hostile to the rights of gun owners has damaged the party in the last two elections and will do so again in 2004 unless they change their ways, the Democratic Leadership Council said yesterday.

Al From, founder of the centrist DLC, and Democratic Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas said the antigun image perpetuates the idea that Democrats are “cultural elites,” alienating them from mainstream voters.

At a press conference titled “God, Guns and Guts: Seizing the Cultural Center,” Mr. From said Democrats generally avoid speaking about gun rights and other cultural issues important in rural and suburban areas, leaving voters with the impression that Democrats “don’t think like us.”

In the 2000 presidential election, Republicans enjoyed big advantages among voters who own firearms, frequently attend church, serve in the military and are married with children, Mr. From said.

“We, at the DLC, believe it’s important that Democratic leaders face up to tough issues, even ones they sometimes feel uncomfortable talking about,” said Mr. From, who sponsored yesterday’s press event along with Americans for Gun Safety. “We consider that our role as the party’s reality therapists.”

Mr. Bayh, chairman of the DLC, said Democrats “have a credibility problem” on guns and national security issues.

“We cannot be perceived as cultural elitists and weak on national security issues,” Mr. Bayh said. “That’s not a prescription for victory for the Democratic Party.”

Democratic pollster Mark Penn, who was a key architect of Bill Clinton’s winning message in two presidential elections, presented new research that showed that if Democrats don’t talk about “gun safety and respect for the Second Amendment,” voters presume they are antigun.

“It is very clear that silence is not golden for Democrats on the gun issue,” Mr. Penn said, adding that Democratic Party pays a steep price for its antigun image while the Republicans’ pro-gun image doesn’t cost them any votes.

“The formula for Democrats is to say that they support the Second Amendment, but that they want tough laws that close loopholes” in current gun laws, Mr. Penn said, adding that polls show the term “gun safety” is received better than the more commonly used term “gun control.”

If Democrats could neutralize Republicans’ advantage with gun owners, Mr. Penn said, as much as 21 percent of swing voters would come their way.

“This is something [Democrats] can run on and win on,” Mr. Penn said.

Andrew Arulanandam, director of public affairs for the National Rifle Association, scoffed at the notion that a “poll-tested moniker” would make a difference in elections.

“They are underestimating the intelligence of voters,” Mr. Arulanandam said. “What matters to NRA members and the tens of millions of gun owners is not rhetoric, but action. It’s a dangerous gamble for these groups to assume they can pull one over on the voters.”

Mr. Bayh and Mr. Pryor both defeated opponents who tried to cast them as being against the right to own firearms. At stump speeches, Mr. Pryor said he carried in his wallet a trump card: his hunting license.

But the two senators from rural states, both of which were won by President Bush in the 2000 election, said that strident antigun Democrats — especially Sens. Barbara Boxer of California, Charles S. Schumer of New York and Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey — pose image problems. Those senators are in the forefront of battles to strengthen the ban on assault weapons, to defeat legislation that would protect gun dealers from some lawsuits, and to strictly regulate sales at weekend gun shows.

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