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Gore's Gun Problem

The Veep casts himself as the hero of gun control, but didn't he use to be the NRA's good friend?

cover image

By Karen Tumulty

February 7, 2000
Web posted at: 12:54 p.m. EST (1754 GMT)

When it comes to iconic campaign images, it is hard to beat the moment, a month after the tragedy at Columbine High, when Al Gore strode into the Republican Senate, commandeered the ivory gavel and broke a tie to require background checks on people who buy weapons at gun shows. It was, he declared, "a turning point for our country." You could almost see the ad in the can. But in that same chamber 14 years before, Gore cast some other pivotal votes--ones that made him a hero to the gun lobby and that could come back to haunt him. "We could have made Al Gore NRA Man of the Year--every single vote," says National Rifle Association honcho Wayne LaPierre. "It's the most spectacular conversion I've ever seen. It's worthy of being investigated by the church."

In an interview last weekend, the Vice President said his early views of the issue reflected the perspective of a Congressman from a rural part of the South where "guns did not really present a threat to public safety but rather were predominantly a source of recreation." As a young representative of a conservative Tennessee district, Gore opposed putting serial numbers on guns so they could be traced, and voted to cut the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms budget by $4.2 million so that it could not carry out regulations that had unleashed a torrent of 300,000 letters from gun owners.

What is likely to be more troublesome now are the votes he took in 1985 when the Senate--taking its first major stand on gun control in almost two decades--significantly weakened the gun law it had put into place after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. By then elected statewide, Gore was representing Memphis and Nashville and other urban areas where, he acknowledges, "gun violence was even at that time beginning to increase." But he voted against a 14-day waiting period for handgun purchases and for allowing their sale across state lines. And as recently as 1986, the future Vice President told the Washington Monthly that gun-control laws "haven't been an effective solution to the underlying problem of violent crime." Now Gore says he was in a "process of changing one's understanding that doesn't occur overnight." And, he adds, "there are certainly some votes I would cast differently knowing what I do about the issue now."

In fairness, Gore had plenty of company, even among Democrats, in backing the gun lobby during the 1980s. "Back in those days everybody did," says Sarah Brady, wife of Ronald Reagan's wounded press secretary, who became outraged enough by the 1985 bill to join the cause of gun control. But there were a few exceptions. "In 18 years in the Senate, Bill Bradley never cast a single vote in support of gun owners," notes NRA spokesman Bill Powers.

Bradley was not always there in the clinch. He missed the crucial series of votes in 1985, though the margins were such that his votes would not have made a difference in the outcome. But in 1990, Bradley and Gore were on opposite sides of an amendment that would have prohibited the sale of large-capacity ammunition magazines and banned a dozen types of assault-style weapons. The language ultimately became law under the Clinton-Gore Administration.

By then Gore had switched sides on the issue. He credits Sarah Brady for "helping a lot of us" see how gun control and overbearing government were not the same. And the admiration is mutual. "He's been one of our biggest proponents," she says of Gore.

Both of this year's Democratic presidential candidates have advanced ambitious gun proposals: Gore would require that purchasers of weapons obtain photo licenses; Bradley would go even further, registering the guns themselves. While Gore says he has an "open mind" on gun registration, he insists that the more radical step has "zero chance of being enacted."

Gore has long been aware that his past could be a problem. As far back as his 1988 presidential race, an internal campaign memo listed his opposition to gun control as a vulnerability, pitting him against law enforcement and his own party base. But only within recent days has Bradley's operation begun to delve more deeply into the issue as a potential area of attack, and as of late last week campaign strategists were still pondering how to use it. "It's certainly an issue that will surface before the March 7 primary," says a senior adviser. Gore is undoubtedly a convert, but in a year when voters are looking for authenticity in their candidates' motivations, the question could be whether he is a true believer as well. --With reporting by Tamala M. Edwards with Bradley


Cover Date: February 14, 2000

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