Jewish World Review
http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) Howard Dean puts it point-blank.
"Sure," said the former Vermont governor, a Democrat running for president. "You can walk into my office with a gun."
Because packing heat is legal in the Green Mountain State, Dean doesn't mind if you carry a gun there - provided you are not a convict, mentally ill or threatening someone with your weapon. Perhaps no other state in the nation is so lenient when it comes to carrying concealed firearms.
Repeat: Dean is a Democrat, and widely considered a liberal one at that.
But he and a growing number of fellow Democrats believe their party must avoid alienating tens of millions of gun owners - especially in rural areas and the South - in order to have a chance to win the White House next year.
Having seen their party blistered by gun-rights groups that can fire up single-issue voters, many Democratic leaders are holstering traditional arguments about gun control.
Federal firearms laws were barely mentioned in the first Democratic presidential debate last weekend. And Phil Journey, president of the Kansas State Rifle Association, said he wasn't surprised.
Watching some Democrats today, Journey said, "is like watching that old Monty Python movie where the knights throw up their hands and say, `Run away!' They're finally getting the message" about gun owners' rights.
Others would rather keep fighting in the name of public safety.
Angered that the U.S. House easily passed a bill to protect the gun industry from lawsuits, Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey told The Washington Post recently: "People are frightened of a reaction from the gun lobby. Frankly, I think we need to stand up to them."
Dean explained his stand Thursday on his way to a Kansas City, Mo., fund-raiser: If states with high-crime problems want to draft strict gun laws, fine. But Vermont never has chosen to do so.
Vermont is the lone U.S. state in which most law-abiding citizens can carry concealed firearms without obtaining a permit.
"We have no gun control in Vermont," said Dean, who served 12 years as governor. "We also have pretty close to the lowest homicide rate in America."
Dean said he supports extending the federal ban on assault weapons. He supports federal requirements for criminal background checks on gun buyers. But with many other gun-related questions, Dean advocates letting states set their own rules.
"I don't think gun control is a national issue," he said. "In the rural state I come from, we're accustomed to being around guns ... But it's perfectly all right to me if New York and New Jersey have all the gun legislation they want."
That hardly sounds pro-gun to Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association.
He said Dean and many other Democrats are "schizophrenic" on the issue, if not flagrantly "anti-Second Amendment."
Yet there is one sign that the Republican leadership wishes to inch toward a middle ground in the gun debate, as well. President Bush has pledged support for extending the ban on semiautomatic assault weapons, riling gun groups that have considered him to be a champion of their interests.
In Missouri, another Democratic governor, Bob Holden, has pledged to veto so-called "right-to-carry" legislation recently passed by the General Assembly.
Political analysts expect Holden to keep his veto promise, even if it may upset voters in rural areas where pro-gun sentiments run highest.
"Number one, by vetoing it he's pleasing the majority of voters" who defeated a 1999 statewide referendum for legalizing the carrying of concealed weapons, said Ken Warren, a pollster and St. Louis University political science professor. "That's a very strong argument."
Add to that argument Holden's desire to strengthen his urban Democratic base, or that it might please GOP suburbanites who support gun controls, "and Bob Holden comes out smelling like a rose," Warren said.
Other Democrats have taken sometimes awkward steps to appeal to gun-owning voters - thought to be about half of the American electorate.
Last year in Alaska, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Fran Ulmer brought the news media along when she shopped for a new handgun to carry in her purse. She lost the election.
Former U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan, a Missouri Democrat, drew hoots from the gun lobby when her 2002 campaign turned a skeet shoot into a photo opportunity. Cameras clicked as she cradled her own 20-gauge Browning Citori shotgun.
She, too, lost the election.
Such displays are not intended to woo conservative stalwarts within the NRA, said David Kopel, a Colorado gun-rights advocate who considers himself a Democrat.
Rather, the aim is to "prevent the further defection of working-class people who voted Democratic for economic issues but switched to Republican because of guns," he said. Kopel is research director at the Independence Institute, which leans toward libertarian causes.
A politician "certainly can be in favor of some sensible, reasonable, moderate gun control and still be a very sincere defender of Second Amendment rights" to keep and bear arms, Kopel said.
That view is now echoed by the Democratic Leadership Council - once headed by an Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton.
In fact, the council of centrist Democrats chimed in agreement when Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2001 extended Justice Department policy to assert that gun ownership was an "individual right" and not just the "collective right" of militias.
Ashcroft's stand enraged gun-control forces. But the Democratic Leadership Council's Bruce Reed wrote that "if Ashcroft is too quick to dismiss every other constitutional right, he's right about this one."
"We can't go out and demonize gun owners," said Jose Cerda, a senior policy adviser on crime issues for the Democratic council. "The constitutional right to own a firearm is something Democrats should support," and yet, "it's something we didn't always make clear."
At the same time, Cerda said, "You don't simply take gun issues off the table. Guns remain a completely American aspect to the crime problem."
Many political observers - and certainly the NRA - credit Democrat Al Gore's narrow defeat in 2000 to pro-gun voters in West Virginia, Tennessee, Montana and other states teeming with hunters.
Candidate Dean shares this view, once telling a TV interviewer: "We need to get guns off the national radar screen if Democrats are ever going to win again in the South and the West."
But Luis Tolley, state legislative director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said Dean "has veered way too far toward the NRA" to win his party's nomination.
"I'd be surprised if anyone can win a Democratic primary without having strong positions on gun control," Tolley said.
While the rhetoric about guns has changed, public opinion has not, said Robert Spitzer, author of "The Politics of Gun Control." He said most Americans continue to support firearm laws that, for example, ban assault weapons, regulate handgun sales and require background checks.
And Spitzer questioned the gun lobby's role in Gore's defeat. After all, the presidential contender prevailed in Pennsylvania and several other states considered vital to the NRA, perhaps partly because he fought the lobby, Spitzer said.
Nevertheless, about one-third of Democrats in the U.S. House this month backed a bill to give gun makers and dealers sweeping immunity from lawsuits. While many of those Democrats represent rural districts, others were city folk, including Rep. Harold Ford of Memphis, Tenn.
"The thinking among some Democrats may be: Why should my plans for national health insurance be sacrificed on gun issues?" said Kopel of the Independence Institute.
Missouri gun-control activist Jeanne Kirkton deplores the reasoning.
"It's scary," said Kirkton, legislative director of the Million Mom March in St. Louis. "When politicians are silenced by an aggressive minority, it's not healthy.
"Poll after poll shows most Americans support sensible gun regulations. ... But the gun people - they get out the vote."
Poll after poll also puts firearm issues low on the public's list of major concerns today - well below the economy, terrorism, health care and education.
So unless Dean of Vermont jumps way ahead of the Democratic pack, his opponents for the nomination probably will not shout much about his view on gun legislation, said political scientist Warren.
And, should Dean win the nomination, should he hope also to win the NRA's endorsement for the White House?
"No," Dean said. "They would support George W. Bush over any Democratic nominee."
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