An article in last week's Washington Post announced some astonishing news: gun control isn't the sure thing liberals thought it would be for getting out the vote. After Columbine and a spate of high-profile shooting incidents in the last few years, anti-gun activists thought they could make great political hay out of the firearms issue, bringing in swing voters and women to sweep in a new politically liberal administration.
The presidential candidates have seldom raised the issue in the last several months, with Vice President Gore in particular going out of his way to avoid it. The evil of firearms received surprisingly little attention at the party conventions — at least during prime time. Tommy Lee Jones even recalled with fondness his college hunting trips with the future Vice President.
This is due, no doubt, to the fact that gun-owners will be crucial in delivering the electoral votes of the so-called "battleground states" — Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania among others — to one candidate or the other. Both sides are quite conscious of the fact that while few anti-gun activists are single issue voters, many gun owners are.
Confronted with the issue head on in the second and third debates, candidate Gore was clearly at pains to put gun owners at ease. Unfortunately, hardly a word he uttered did anything except further alienate him from the very people whose good favor he needs.
For starters, Gore let slip in the third debate a reference to the Brady Law's three-day wait as a "cooling off" period. Few phrases do more to irritate and offend law-abiding gun owners, perpetuating as they do the impression that gun purchasers are prone to fits of murderous rage. Does a woman buying a handgun for protection against a jealous ex-boyfriend or stalker need three days to "cool off"?
Second, Gore mentioned "assault weapons" as "a problem." Time was when some gun owners would sit silently as owners of military-style firearms were demonized. Increasingly, however, these same people realize that "assault weapons" are merely grandpa's semi-automatic hunting rifle painted black, or with some other cosmetic changes. They understand that limitations on such rifles, or registration as is now required in California, represent a threat to all private ownership of firearms.
Next, Mr. Gore proposed photo licenses for new gun purchasers, which gun owners understand as yet another costly hurdle for the law-abiding to jump through, and which Governor Bush ridiculed as having no effect on criminals.
The "gun show loophole"? There is no such thing. And owners of firearms hugely resent the implication that they attend these weekend swapmeets for firearms, parts and accessories as a means of evading the law.
Gore intoned at the October 11 debate that, "I will not do anything to affect the rights of hunters and sportsmen." Six days later, in the third debate, he said, "None of my proposals would have any effect on hunters, or sportsmen, or people who use rifles."
While some gun owners may find these words reassuring, most roll their eyes at such talk. Gun owners are, as a rule, far more familiar with their nation's laws and Constitution than other Americans. They are well aware that the Second Amendment refers not a single time to "hunters and sportsmen," but they are all too familiar with liberal attempts to redefine the Second Amendment as a merely recreational right, to be enjoyed only at the pleasure of the federal government.
Any doubts about the current administration's views on the question were erased during the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court hearings last June in the case of Emerson v. United States. There, in a New Orleans federal courtroom, the following exchange took place between the administration's attorney, William B. Mateja, and one member of the three judge panel:
Judge William L. Garwood: "You are saying that the Second Amendment is consistent with a position that you can take guns away from the public? You can restrict ownership of rifles, pistols and shotguns from all people? Is that the position of the United States?"
Assistant U.S. Attorney William B. Mateja: "Yes."
Judge Garwood: "Is it the position of the United States that persons who are not in the National Guard are afforded no protections under the Second Amendment?"
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mateja: "Exactly."
Asked by Judge Garwood whether membership in the National Guard would qualify an American citizen to possess firearms, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mateja answered no, "The weapon in question must be used in the National Guard." A widely-circulated August 2000 letter from Justice Department official Seth B. Waxman confirmed that Mateja had indeed accurately stated the administration's position.
With the current administration's position stated so clearly, nothing candidate Gore could say would reassure firearms owners that he doesn't have something up his sleeve. He and his party have essentially painted themselves into an extremist corner on the issue, with no apparent exit in view.