- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2004

Aside from same-sex “marriage,” there is at least one other cultural issue no Democrat running against President Bush wants to touch: gun control. Bill Clinton and Al Gore both tried to avoid picking up this political hot potato in their 1992, 1996 and 2000 presidential campaigns because gun control is unpopular in swing states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and can harm a candidate’s chances across the South. One consultant who worked for Wesley Clark’s southern campaign said the best thing liberals can do during a gun-control debate is “change the subject.” Not all Democrats agree, and some legislators on Capitol Hill plan to push gun-control measures up until the November election.

One bill that guarantees an eventual showdown is the so-called Assault Weapons Ban of 1994, which expires in six months. Senate Democrats are offering two updated versions; both of which are tougher than the current restrictions. One option makes a ban permanent; the other outlaws even more types of arms, ammunition and equipment. Congressional leadership sources told us that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay does not plan to let a new ban or renewal of the current ban see the light of day in the lower chamber, but that there is some resistance inside the party. Mr. DeLay and House Speaker Dennis Hastert have disagreed over gun control before, for example. There is also a move in the Senate for stricter background checks, which is led by Republican Sen. John McCain.

Those who support more stringent gun-control laws are swimming against the tide, as the national trend is toward greater gun-ownership and use rights. Two days ago, the Virginia Senate voted down a bill that sought to make it more difficult to purchase arms at gun shows. Three weeks ago, the Wisconsin Senate overrode the governor’s veto of a bill to allow citizens to carry concealed handguns. Similar right-to-carry legislation was introduced in Kansas on Tuesday — the same day legislation was introduced in Illinois to allow citizens to use handguns for self-defense in their homes, even in communities that have gun bans. In Congress, the Republican leadership is planning a vote next month that would protect gun manufacturers from product-liability claims.

Not all Democrats look forward to a partisan fight over gun-ownership rights. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who faces a tough re-election bid in pro-gun South Dakota, realizes the danger for both his campaign and the party’s national ticket — and is trying to discourage the push for gun control among his colleagues. Mr. Daschle’s strategic loss on this issue could bring electoral gains for Republicans in the fall.

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