Guns help to define new political geography

In the bellwether Midwest, the needle is tilting away from the NRA.

June 16, 1999|By Ronald Brownstein

WASHINGTON -- Like converging weather systems, the old and new politics of gun control collided over Michigan this spring. Predictably, turbulence followed.

Michigan has long been a stronghold of the National Rifle Association and few were surprised when the state legislature approved bills that would make it easier for state residents to carry concealed weapons -- a top NRA priority.

Then came the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. Suddenly the weather changed. A formidable alliance of Michigan gun-control advocates announced that, if the bill became law, they would place a repeal referendum on next November's ballot. A statewide poll found overwhelming public opposition to the legislation. Michigan's Republican governor, John Engler, developed second thoughts. Now the bill is stalled in a legislative conference committee and may never emerge.

Michigan was not alone in turning against guns this spring. New gun-control measures are advancing along both coasts: in California, Oregon, Connecticut and New Jersey. In Florida, gun advocates were forced to shelve an NRA-inspired bill that would have barred cities from suing gun manufacturers to recover the costs associated with gun violence.

Political backlash

But the recoil from the gun lobby is only part of the story. Even amid the backlash, eight states across the South and Mountain West (plus Alaska) this spring have passed the NRA legislation banning municipal lawsuits against gun manufacturers. In states such as Texas and Oklahoma, the bills received final approval after the Columbine massacre, which took 15 lives.

In these divergent responses to the Colorado tragedy lie clues to a central trend in American politics at the century's end: the hardening separation of the country into distinct zones of political and cultural influence. On one side of the divide are culturally cosmopolitan coastal states and progressive portions of the upper Midwest (such as Iowa and Minnesota) that are generally trending toward Democrats in national politics. On the other is the culturally traditionalist heartland: a great "L" running down from the Mountain States across the Deep South, where Republicans rule. In this regional seesaw, the fulcrum is the industrial Midwest, where neither party has a clear upper hand.

Political trends

President Clinton has twice romped in the Progressive Belt (to borrow columnist William Schneider's phrase), while Bob Dole and George Bush held most of the conservative L. With Northeastern Republicans and Southern Democrats both declining, the same pattern is emerging in Congress. Republicans hold 30 more House seats than Democrats in the states Mr. Dole carried. Democrats have a 17-seat advantage in the Clinton states. Republicans hold 16 more Senate seats in the Dole states. Democrats six more in the Clinton states. In federal races, it is almost as if American politics is being partitioned into competing spheres of influence.

These regional contrasts partly reflect divergent attitudes about taxes and spending. But they may spring most from clashing views on social issues such as abortion -- where Southern public opinion, in particular, is more conservative than elsewhere. In 2000, no social issue may expose this political and cultural divide more than guns.

Already the regional disparities are stark. While the lawsuit pre-emption bans have gained across the conservative belt, California is advancing legislation to limit handgun purchases, and Oregon is moving to require background checks for purchases at gun shows -- the same issue at the center of the federal gun debate that is resuming in the House this week.

In the bellwether Midwest, the needle is tilting away from the NRA. Even before Michigan reversed course, Missouri voters rejected a statewide referendum in April that would have made it legal to carry concealed weapons. Republican governors in Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin have said that they would veto concealed-carry bills.

Similar regional variations will be on display this week, when the House votes on the principal GOP gun bill -- which weakens some of the key provisions in the legislation that passed the Senate last month on Vice President Al Gore's tie-breaking vote. Most Republicans will probably vote for the bill. Most Democrats are certain to vote against it.

Weak bill

But as many as three dozen Republicans who represent suburban Midwestern or coastal-state districts may cross party lines to oppose the bill because they consider it too weak. As many or more Democrats from the South and rural Midwestern districts may cross in the opposite direction to support the legislation. The added complication is that some Republicans from the conservative belt may vote against the bill because they consider it too tough on gun owners. That might be enough to kill the measure altogether.

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