Gun control used to be such a simple issue to follow. National Democratic candidates supported more restrictions, while most Republicans believed that gun control provided few benefits. Recently, however, the Democratic Party talks about their devotion to the Second Amendment, while President Bush has been pursuing many policies that are no different (and occasionally more restrictive) than those of his opponents.
At every campaign stop, Democratic front-runner Howard Dean brags about his "A" rating from the NRA, while insurgent Wesley Clark likes to talk about how he grew up around guns and enjoys shooting. Joseph Lieberman, who in the Senate has rarely seen a gun-control bill he didn't like, recently came out against the national handgun licensing proposal at the center of the platform that Al Gore and he ran on in 2000. And Sen. John Kerry invited the media to join him last week on a hunting trip.
Gun-control organizations have claimed that many Democratic presidential candidates are simply putting their views in more politically acceptable terms without changing their substance. Possibly, they are merely putting the best spin on things, but Mr. Dean's frequent references to the Second Amendment certainly take the edge off a little noticed fact: According to gun-control organizations - from Americans for Guns Safety to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence - all the Democratic candidates support the same new gun-control laws.
It is likely to be smart politics. Mr. Dean blames Mr. Gore's loss on the former vice president's support for extensive federal gun control and now loudly touts his opposition to it. Labor union strategists, likewise, have privately told the Democratic presidential candidates that they will lose key states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Mexico if they come off as gun-grabbers.
The rhetoric also mirrors recent polls. According to a 2002 ABC News poll, three-quarters of Americans believe that the Second Amendment protects individuals' right to own guns. Today's sympathetic statements about guns may be part of a strategic retreat: As Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi recently said, many Democrats will surely revisit guns "when the issue is ripe."
Even less well noted is how the parties have converged from both directions. Mr. Bush and the leading Democratic candidates are taking the same positions on issues ranging from assault weapons to gun-show regulation to gun locks. In some cases, the Bush administration even favors more restrictions than many Democrats. When it came to letting pilots carry guns in cockpits, for example, most Democratic candidates supported the proposal, but the Bush administration opposed it and has only certified a few hundred pilots (out of more than 10,000) to date. The administration has also continued Clinton-era bans on gun importation and retained ROTC policies that don't require trainees to learn weapons skills before graduation.
One critical gun-related issue still does separate the Bush administration and leading Democratic candidates: The administration supports limitations on lawsuits against gun manufacturers, while nearly all Democrats running for president and serving in Congress oppose them. While continued tort litigation could bankrupt many gun makers, the issue involves more than just guns. Republican voters, such as business owners and individual investors, tend to support nearly all tort reform measures, while Democratic supporters, such as trial lawyers and left-leaning advocacy groups, oppose them. Very little money is at stake in suing gun makers, but both sides recognize the precedents that can be used against other industries.
The closer one gets to the Democratic base, however, the greater the support for gun control grows. House Democrats favor a vastly expanded "assault weapons ban" (that would ban many hunting and skeet shooting shotguns), while their Senate colleagues are working to renew a ban on non-existent "plastic guns." And Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy has threatened a filibuster to stop the concealed-carry-for-law-enforcement proposals. Similarly, it is the Republican base, particularly in the House, where opposition to new regulations is strongest.
Furthermore, at the state level, patterns remain relatively predictable: Republican-dominated legislatures in Alaska, Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri have recently passed concealed -carry laws over fierce democratic opposition. Only Democrat-dominated New Mexico's passage of the law this year breaks the pattern.
So, do Democrats mean it when they talk the gun rights line? The explicit discussions of what will win elections and continued support for new regulations makes it hard to be too convinced. Yet, despite the rhetoric, presidential candidates in both parties support more control. The fate of more regulations lies in who controls Congress, not the presidency.