Strategy change seen in battle over gun control

In wake of shootings in Colorado, issue moves to forefront

June 28, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In 1970, after Maryland Sen. Joseph Tydings championed the registration and licensing of all handguns, the National Rifle Association took aim and fired, helping to bring down the liberal Democrat by 22,000 votes.

Nearly 30 years later, the NRA is still brandishing Tydings' scalp as an object lesson for politicians who would dare cross the organization. Though Americans generally have supported gun control for years, politicians have approached the issue at their peril.

But this month's congressional showdown over gun control indicates a shift in the political landscape, a new willingness -- perhaps brave, perhaps foolhardy -- to make gun restrictions an issue in Washington and on the campaign trail. Democrats from the White House to the House of Representatives have displayed an almost blind faith that gun control will answer a surge of voter concern over what many see as a sharp decline in the nation's moral fabric.

Liberal pollster John Zogby calls gun control "the cultural issue of the 2000 campaign," an issue that crystallized in the nation's mind in April as it watched the rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado.

"Guns have become emblematic to people of something that's critically wrong in their community and American society today," Zogby said. "The concern can be summed up in one word: Littleton."

Republicans are positively giddy over the Democratic response to Littleton, convinced that the political dynamics of gun control have not changed since Tydings' day.

On the face of it, guns would seem to be an obvious issue. A June 16 Gallup Poll found that 87 percent of Americans support background checks at gun shows, 85 percent support the mandatory sale of trigger locks with guns, and 82 percent favor raising the legal age of firearms possession to 21, all proposals that were defeated in the House this month.

But those numbers are not dramatically higher than they have been in the past, when the NRA made gun-control advocates pay dearly for their votes.

Voters who favor gun control have always cast their ballots on the basis of a variety of issues, and gun control has never been a priority, said Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute, who studies public opinion. But the anti-gun-control forces single-mindedly come out in angry droves, she said.

NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, on the organization's Web site, promised that "the issue will dominate" the 2000 election, which he called "the most important in the history of this country."

By November 2000, "the gun debate [this month] will be long forgotten, with the exception of 2.8 million screaming-mad gun owners who belong to the NRA," said Michael Scanlon, spokesman for House Republican Whip Tom DeLay. "And I can tell you this, my friend: They will be lined up at the voting booth three days in advance to vote on this issue alone, and they'll be pulling the Republican lever each time."

That dynamic was graphically displayed last year in Washington state when a ballot measure to require the sale of trigger locks with guns was voted down by 60 percent in a low-turnout election, despite overwhelming support in the polls.

"The polls showed people strongly in favor of gun control in my day, too," a rueful Tydings said last week in an interview.

The post-Littleton landscape might be different. Politicians of all stripes acknowledge that the school shooting has caused a tectonic shift in the American electorate. In a June 22 poll, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that the six top concerns of American voters are: crime and gangs; morality and ethics; teen violence; education; gun control; and drugs and alcohol -- all signs of Littleton's legacy, said Andrew Kohut, the center's director.

Gun control and teen violence had never before showed up as a concern.

There are other signs of voter unease. At a time when the nation's economy has perhaps never been stronger -- unemployment for minorities is at record lows, inflation has virtually disappeared and a vexing budget deficit has turned into a burgeoning surplus -- 51 percent of Americans say the country is moving in the wrong direction, according to a poll released Thursday by Republican Ed Goeas and Democrat Celinda Lake. Only 36 percent of those polled said the nation is on the right track.

Republicans believe the rise of morality as a political issue works squarely to their advantage. Democrats might try to frame gun control as a social issue, but Republicans can counter with a message that they are tougher on crime and more attuned to voters' concerns on religious values, gay rights, even flag burning.

"Safety could replace abortion as the social issue for the 2000 campaign, but it will be safety in a broader sense," predicted Republican political strategist Frank Luntz. "And crime control will beat gun control every time."

Lake conceded the point.

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