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Dodging The Bullet

By Karen Tumulty and Viveca Novak/Washington

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Even in the wake of the sniper slayings, Democrats are shying away from gun control If there was ever to be a convergence of moment and messenger for tough gun control, it might have come on the day last week when the sniper killed his final victim.

It was then that Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, whose family has twice been devastated by guns and who is locked in a tight race to govern the state where six of the 10 sniper murders took place, was invited by CNN to say something on the subject. The lieutenant governor of Maryland chose her words carefully, never once uttering "gun control," but referring instead to her support for "commonsense gun laws."

Townsend's only new firearm proposal has been an incremental one, extending Maryland's handgun ballistics-fingerprinting system to assault weapons and semiautomatic rifles. But even that is much further than most Democrats are going this year, which is why gun-control advocates don't expect the sniper attacks to produce any significant new laws.

Outside a few liberal states like California and New Jersey, where gun control still plays on the stump, you are more likely these days to hear Democratic candidates touting their Second Amendment bona fides. Bill Clinton's former Energy Secretary, Bill Richardson, is campaigning for Governor as "the choice for New Mexico gun owners and sportsmen."

Joe Turnham, a Democrat running for Congress in Alabama, sums himself up this way: "pro-gun, pro-God, pro--good ole boy." And Missouri's Jean Carnahan, battling to hold on to her Senate seat, boasts of the sharpshooting medal that she won in college. She has even invited reporters to watch her waste a few skeet with her new 20-gauge Browning Citori shotgun. Democrats know that public support for gun control has been falling. In the latest TIME/CNN poll, taken just before the suspects were caught, 51% of respondents favored stricter gun laws--an 8% decline from January 2000, when memories of the Columbine massacre were still fresh.

Gun-rights groups say the 9/11 terrorist attacks left more Americans wanting to protect themselves. Gun sales soared, and the Senate voted to allow pilots to carry guns in the cockpit. It's no wonder that even with the sniper at large early last week, National Rifle Association (N.R.A.) president Charlton Heston, 79, stood at a rally for Republican candidates, flintlock over his head, and challenged gun-control advocates to pry the rifle "from my cold, dead hands."

But Democrats' skittishness on gun control also dates back to their traumatic experience in the 2000 election. To settle the score after the Clinton Administration muscled through the most significant new gun restrictions in nearly 30 years--the 1993 Brady Law requiring background checks for gun buyers and a ban on assault weapons--the gun lobby launched a $13 million attack. Its get-out-the-vote drives, political contributions and advertising helped defeat Al Gore in such crucial places as Arkansas, West Virginia and even Tennessee, his home state.

The lesson was not lost on other Democrats. A year later, Mark Warner ardently courted gun owners in heavily Republican Virginia--and cruised to victory in the Governor's race. In this year's excruciatingly close House and Senate elections, many of the hardest-fought races are in Southern and Western states and semi-rural congressional districts, which explains why national Democratic leaders are doing their best to stay away from the gun issue entirely. The idea of gun control is so out of favor that Handgun Control Inc., a leading lobby organization, changed its name last year to the Brady Campaign and Brady Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.

Meanwhile, gun-rights advocates have been emboldened by an Administration that is sympathetic to their cause. The closeness was underscored by the fact that the military-style gun used in the sniper attacks--named, unfortunately for the White House, Bushmaster XM15--was manufactured by a company owned by Richard Dyke, a Bush fund raiser. Dyke, who briefly headed George W. Bush's 2000 fund-raising operation in Maine, had to give up that job when a controversy erupted over the fact that his firm makes assault weapons; Dyke said he wanted to avoid attracting bad publicity to the candidate.

Attorney General John Ashcroft, for his part, has dramatically expanded the government's view of the Second Amendment. In footnotes to Supreme Court filings earlier this year, Ashcroft's Solicitor General wrote that "the Second Amendment more broadly protects the rights of possess and bear their own firearms." This was a turnabout from the government's long-standing reading of the amendment's scope as being limited to state militias, which has reflected a 1939 Supreme Court decision.

As a result, federal prosecutors are being swamped by court motions from defendants who quote Ashcroft in their argument for having federal gun charges against them dismissed. Among them: convicted American Taliban John Walker Lindh. Still, the sniper spree, even if it has not created a new surge of gun-control legislation, may have temporarily slowed some of the gains that the gun lobby was making in Congress. House Republican leaders quietly delayed a vote on the N.R.A.'s top priority--legislation that would forbid local governments to sue gunmakers. But with well more than half the House signed on as co-sponsors, the bill is likely to return.

As the sniper investigation has progressed, at least one gun-control idea has gained favor: nearly three-quarters of Americans, according to last week's TIME/CNN poll, now support the idea of test-firing all guns sold in the U.S. so the distinctive markings they leave on bullets can be entered into a government database, which could be used to link individual guns to specific crimes. So far, four states are considering joining Maryland and New York in creating such a system.

But the gun lobby has vowed to fight it, with N.R.A. executive vice president Wayne LaPierre saying it is "another scheme that is gun registration masquerading as ballistics fingerprinting." The Bush Administration is lukewarm to the idea. Press secretary Ari Fleischer questioned the effectiveness of the technology two weeks ago and asserted, "In the case of the sniper, the real issue is values... The question is not new laws; the question is the actions here represent the values in our society."

It was only after realizing that his statement put the White House on the opposite side of law-enforcement groups that Fleischer was willing to say that the idea was worth exploring. That means it will take time for the proposal to advance, and time is never on the side of gun control. While public interest can fade quickly, the determination of gun groups never flags.

After the Columbine massacre, they successfully snuffed a congressional attempt

to close the loophole that allows people who buy firearms at gun shows or from one another--such transactions represent 40% of all sales--to avoid the Brady background-check system.

The N.R.A. also has the tenacity to wage its battles state by state. California did succeed recently in repealing the law that protected gun manufacturers from lawsuits by cities wanting compensation for the costs of coping with gun violence. Nearly 30 states, however, have passed such shield laws in the past five years. The biggest test of might between the two sides of the gun debate will come in 2004, when the Clinton-era assault-weapons ban comes up for renewal.

Gun-control advocates note that the weapon used in the sniper attacks was manufactured after the ban and say it shows that the law should be tightened. But the N.R.A. already has a comeback: Over our cold, dead bodies.

Copyright © 2002 Time Inc.

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