Saturday, May 31, 2003

Democrats appear to have abandoned gun control as a political wedge, declining to push the issue in Congress despite being given the opportunity by congressional Republicans.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, upbraided President Bush earlier this month for not pushing fellow Republicans to bring the assault-weapons ban up for reauthorization before it expires in September 2004.

“The president has announced that he supports the assault ban, and it would be helpful if he used his good offices to do that,” Mrs. Pelosi said at her last weekly press briefing before the Memorial Day recess. “I don’t know whether he intends to or not.”

House Republicans consider it a pretty safe bet that he won’t, and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas has stated that the chances of a renewal of the ban coming to the House floor are slim.

Yet Democrats still have options — both rhetorically, by trying to make gun control a hot-button issue again, and legislatively, by filing for a discharge petition to get a vote on the floor.

Mrs. Pelosi, however, has declined to commit to either strategy and acknowledged that if the vote comes to the floor, many Democrats would not vote to renew the ban.

“We would probably lose some votes,” Mrs. Pelosi said early this month. “It won’t be something that we would be whipping.”

Asked whether she would push for a discharge petition, which requires support from a majority of House members, to force an up-or-down vote on the assault-weapons ban, Mrs. Pelosi balked, saying that “our discharge focus is now on unemployment compensation.”

After the press briefing, however, Mrs. Pelosi said the Democrats might revisit guns “when the issue is ripe.”

Republicans see that as a dodge.

“There seems to be a disconnect between Leader Pelosi’s desire for the administration to utilize its ‘good offices,’ while at the same time maintaining that they don’t intend to whip the issue,” a high-level House Republican staffer said.

“If you want something done in this town, you have to be willing to lift a finger at the very least. But on this issue and so many others, it’s apparent that the Democrats aren’t interested in results, just rhetoric,” the staffer said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, has introduced a bill to reauthorize the ban on 19 types of “assault weapons,” which first passed in 1994. It has garnered eight co-sponsors after several weeks of courting.

Meanwhile, a bill protecting firearms manufacturers and gun-store owners from liability if their guns are used to commit crimes passed in the House on April 9 by a vote of 285-140, with the support of 63 Democrats.

The Senate version of the bill has 52 co-sponsors and is expected to pass during the summer.

Andrew Arulanandam, director of public affairs for the National Rifle Association, sees these as signs that the political tide turned long ago against those who support further regulating firearms.

He pointed to the defeat in the 2000 presidential election of Al Gore in such Democratic-leaning yet pro-gun states as West Virginia, Arkansas and his home state of Tennessee.

And in the 2002 midterm elections, 230 of 246 House candidates endorsed by the NRA emerged victorious.

“If you look at the results of the last two elections, you see a trend that candidates who are supporters of gun rights for law-abiding citizens tend to prevail,” Mr. Arulanandam said.

Gun-control groups, however, suggest that the issue may be dormant now, but is apt to become an electoral factor by 2004.

“No one is particularly focused on this,” said Matt Bennett, spokesman for Americans for Gun Safety. “There is no hook for this issue quite yet. But when the public realizes that unless Congress acts [by September 2004], that ‘street sweepers’ and Tec-9s will hit the streets again, it will become hot again.”

Democrats abandon the gun issue at their peril, said Blaine Rummel, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

He disputed the NRA’s political success stories, noting that Mr. Gore won Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — states where advocates on both sides of the gun issue spent heavily on political advertising.

“There isn’t a shred of evidence that says gun control is a political loser,” Mr. Rummel said. “It hasn’t cost a candidate a political race anywhere.”

Mr. Rummel also pointed to the failed campaign of Senate candidate Jean Carnahan, Missouri Democrat, who tried to woo gun owners by wearing hunting camouflage in her political advertising.

“The Democrats ran away from gun safety in the 2002 elections, and look where it got them,” Mr. Rummel said. “Whoever is advising them on gun control should be shot.”

Democrats “foolishly believe the NRA is going to go easy on them” if they register a vote for the liability protection or keep quiet about the assault-weapons ban, Mr. Rummel said.

“This issue is never going to go away,” he said.

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