When the Justice Department this week declared that it would break with 60 years of precedent and interpret the Second Amendment as guaranteeing the rights of individuals not just militias to bear arms, the reaction among Washington Democrats was striking: Most of them avoided the topic altogether.
Just two years ago, gun control seemed to be a winning issue for Democrats. A wave of school shootings had led to calls for tougher legislation, culminating in the Million Mom March on Washington. Many states were suing gun manufacturers. At their national convention, the Democrats called for mandatory safety locks and the licensing of handgun owners.
But these days, most Democrats speaking out on the issue sound like Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia who spoke of his passion for hunting at the annual conference of the National Rifle Association while the rest have been notably silent on the subject. There are, of course, exceptions: Sen. Charles Schumer of New York held a press conference decrying the new interpretation of the right to bear arms.
Yet legislative activity has been meager; in fact, there's been more action on the antirestriction front, particularly in the states.
Driving this shift is a realization among Democrats that they must do better in rural areas if they are to win control of Congress this fall, or the White House in 2004. Indeed, this year's battle for Congress could come down to a handful of rural districts in the Rocky Mountain West and the South. Democrats' top targets include seats in Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Georgia areas where hunting is a way of life, and gun control is anathema.
"Certainly, the gun-control issue hurts candidates Democrats or otherwise in rural areas and the South," says Robert Spitzer, author of "The Politics of Gun Control." "For the Democrats trying to regain the House and consolidate control in the Senate, the gun issue is probably not the one that's going to propel them into power."
Some Democrats are still pushing for more restrictions. Sens. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Jack Reed of Rhode Island have introduced separate bills requiring background checks at gun shows. This week, Senator Lieberman and his GOP cosponsor, Sen. John McCain, launched a radio-ad campaign sponsored by the group Americans for Gun Safety calling background checks an essential procedure in a time of terrorism. It's not clear whether Senate majority leader Tom Daschle will bring either measure up before the November elections.
But elsewhere, Democrats are lifting restrictions. Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) who caught the attention of many Democrats when he won the governor's seat last fall after openly courting the NRA signed a law overturning Alexandria's ban on concealed weapons in public buildings.
The shift in tone can be traced to the aftermath of the 2000 election, and the pervasive belief that the issue cost Al Gore the presidency. Exit polls from 2000 showed that among gun owners, George W. Bush beat Mr. Gore by 61 to 39 percent. More significant, while 59 percent of union households went for Mr. Gore overall, those homes were just as likely to choose Bush if they contained guns.
A group of Southern Democratic governors recently told reporters that they believed the gun-control issue had hurt Gore in their region. "We like to hunt; we like to fish and I think there was a perception in the last general election ... that [Gore] was out of step with what most of us thought about that issue," said Gov. Roy Barnes (D) of Georgia.
Still, some analysts say this overstates the impact. While gun owners may have tipped the scales toward Bush in West Virginia, which usually votes Democratic, Gore might well have lost the more conservative states of Tennessee and Arkansas regardless of his stance. And Gore won Michigan and Pennsylvania states where the NRA spent heavily, and has high membership.
Moreover, in congressional races, a number of NRA-favored incumbents were ousted in 2000, such as Sen. Slade Gorton (R) in Washington, Sen. Rod Grams (R) in Minnesota, and Sen. John Ashcroft (R) in Missouri.
Pollsters point out that most Americans favor moderate gun controls, and have for decades. When asked about particular restrictions such as child-safety locks, or mandatory waiting times for background checks 80 to 90 percent of Americans say they would support them, says Carroll Doherty, editor of the Pew Research Center in Washington.
But there's a clear regional divide, he adds, with the rural South and West much more opposed to restrictions. And the intensity is far stronger on the antirestriction side, which translates into greater political clout.
"Gun owners are more likely to vote and support candidates solely on that issue, or mostly on that issue," says Doherty.
As many rural areas gradually become more suburban, views on gun control may eventually shift. But, analysts say, the political impact may not be felt for a while.
"If you have an area where the NRA is pretty well organized ...," says Prof. Spitzer, "it certainly poses a hassle to anyone who wants to go up against it."