Saturday, September 6, 2003

The 1994 ban on assault weapons expires next year and with its renewal hardly guaranteed, gun-control advocates plan to keep the pressure on Congress.

But so far, none of the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates has made gun-control a major thrust of the campaign, further dimming the prospects of passage of a tougher ban.

Bryan Miller, executive director of Ceasefire PA and Ceasefire New Jersey, recognizes that other issues, such as foreign policy and the economy, are unlikely to relinquish center stage.

“I’m not surprised to see politicians talk about other things,” Mr. Miller said. “Our job is to bring it to the public, bring it to the politicians and get them to talk about it.”

Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and presidential aspirant, was among the first to do so, dedicating part of his official candidacy-announcement speech Tuesday to gun control.

“Courage means standing up for gun safety, not retreating from the issue out of political fear or trying to have it both ways,” Mr. Kerry said. The statement was perceived as a swipe at Democratic front-runner Howard Dean, who procured the endorsement of the National Rifle Association when governor of Vermont.

Dean spokesman Eric Schmeltzer said the candidate supports many federal gun laws on the books, but believes “the people of each state should be able to decide how much gun control they want in their states.”

Joshua Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, pegs Mr. Dean as “probably a little more conservative on this than many other candidates.”

“Actually, we thought there’d be a bigger split among the candidates,” he said.

All the Democratic candidates support the ban on assault weapons and all oppose a bill pending in Congress that would protect gun manufacturers from being sued if their products are used in crimes. But a split among the candidates exists.

In a survey issued by the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, Mr. Dean was the only one of the major candidates to suggest that state and local governments are better suited to write and enforce gun-control laws. The group advocates strict federal gun control.

A litmus test for a candidate’s gun-control bona fides is support for two bills languishing in Congress that would greatly toughen the 1994 assault-weapons ban. The law banned only nine specific weapons, and since then firearms manufacturers have modified those models to offer customers weapons that operate in the exact same way.

Of the major candidates for president, only Mr. Kerry and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat, expressed specific support for the tougher law in the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence voters survey.

“John Kerry has a strong voting record. He has always been a good friend to this issue,” Mr. Horwitz said. “If you compare that to Howard Dean, John Kerry’s answers are strong. There’s less hedging.”

Mr. Miller said he is angry that renewing the assault-weapons ban is getting so little traction in Congress.

“I am morally outraged that we have to convince elected officials that renewing the assault-weapons ban is a good idea,” Mr. Miller said.

Alex Formuzis, spokesman for Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat, and sponsor of one of the bills that would tighten the assault-weapons ban, said gun control is unlikely to become a big campaign issue.

“It’s an issue, unfortunately, that hasn’t had a lot of attention in the last year or two,” Mr. Formuzis said. “If it can’t come up for a debate on the floor, it’s very difficult to get the attention of the American people.

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