Gunning for Gun Control

Many Democratic Party leaders blame Al Gore's tough stance on gun control for his loss of a few key states in the 2000 presidential race. To avoid a repeat in 2004, some candidates are avoiding the party's long-held view that non-hunting guns need more control.

Current front-runner Howard Dean even stooped to using an old stereotype of a gun owner when he said last week that he wants "to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks." And John Kerry made a point of taking reporters on a quickly arranged pheasant hunt in Iowa. The two men are now vying for the votes of gun owners.

No doubt any candidate who differs with the views of the National Rifle Association must think twice about supporting various gun-control measures before Congress. The NRA has set up a website listing many opponents of its viewpoints (this newspaper included) as suitable targets for political activism by its millions of members. The NRA can easily influence elections by mobilizing its money and single-issue members.

Top Democratic candidates, however, risk losing support from blacks and other elements of their liberal base by evading the party's past commitments to reducing violent crime through gun-control measures that don't constrain hunting.

None of them, for instance, endorses Mr. Gore's call in 2000 for licensing new handgun owners. And Mr. Dean fudges the issue of more federal controls by saying any new gun laws should be up to the states - hardly a sound policy when guns easily travel across state lines.

Congress still needs to put constraints on gun-show sales and extend the 1994 ban on some semiautomatic weapons, which will expire next year. It must also defeat a bill by Senate minority leader Thomas Daschle (D) that would shield gun manufacturers from lawsuits.

The whole issue of gun control has evolved over the past few decades to incremental steps. Many voters will support reasonable, step-by-step gun measures. And not all stereotypes are true: Gore did win in Michigan, a strong gun-owning state.

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