Coddling Criminals, NRA-Style

May 03, 1994

Rep. Wayne Gilchrest is a Republican from the Eastern Shore, and the fact that he is going to vote to ban 19 specific assault-type weapons should serve as a wake-up call to other members of his party. The shore is Hunter Country. If he can vote for this, anyone can.

His decision is in our view every bit as important as is the decision of Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois to support the assault weapons ban. Mr. Hyde represents a dense suburban district near Chicago's O'Hare Airport. He is a solid conservative (the Hyde of the "Hyde Amendment," which forbids federal spending for abortions), a long-time foe of many gun control measures, a World War II veteran. It is in such districts as these two men represent -- rural, small-town and suburban -- that Republicans have been most anti-gun control. Now the times are changing.

Party leaders better pay attention to men like Wayne Gilchrest and Henry Hyde. For the first time in years -- in decades -- the Democrats are trusted to do a better job on fighting crime than Republicans (by 39 percent to 32 percent, according to a ABC News/ Washington Post poll last February). That's quite a switch. Not too long ago Republicans could taunt Democrats as the "criminals' party." One big reason for the switch is that the National Rifle Association controls so many Republicans in Congress on gun issues and keeps them voting the NRA way even when every major law enforcement organization takes the opposing view. When the House Judiciary Committee approved the assault weapons ban last week, Representative Hyde was the only Republican to support it.

Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, whose district is much like Mr. Hyde's, says she doesn't know how she'll vote on the assault weapons ban Thursday. Sounds like she's feeling the heat from Maryland's more fevered anti-ban crowd (she's running for governor against an ardent gun supporter in the GOP primary). She would be making a mistake to treat such calls, faxes and letters as the voice of the people. It's the voice of a well-organized (and well-financed) minority. As Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen put it, these sentiments are "not grass roots," just "Astroturf." Manufactured. Not the real thing. He, like President Clinton, who is leading the fight for the ban, is a hunter. They know the banned weapons are not needed by sportsmen.

At the real grass roots level, people are fed up with crime and those who "coddle criminals." Once upon a time conservatives used that terminology to describe those ACLU types who insisted on fair treatment for criminals. Today it is more apt in describing the NRA types who, despite the pleas of law enforcement officers everywhere, side with their long-time allies, the manufacturers of "street-sweepers" and all similar anti-police weapons.

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