LaPierre attack marks new low in gun control debate

March 17, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Just when you imagine the level of civility in our political discourse has reached an absolute nadir, someone sets a new low.

This time it is Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association. He has plunged to the bottom of the rhetorical sewer with his charge President Clinton is "willing to accept a certain level of killing" to reinforce his political case for gun control.

Americans have become accustomed to harsh rhetoric in political campaigns and controversies. And they too often allow themselves to be influenced by negative campaigning, as both Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush demonstrated so clearly in the presidential primaries.

But the suggestion that the president tolerates killings because they reinforce a political agenda goes beyond the pale. When it comes to Mr. Clinton, there don't seem to be any limits on the animosity felt by most Republicans and conservatives. During the South Carolina primary campaign last month, Mr. Bush's advisers were complaining most bitterly about John McCain comparing the Texas governor to Mr. Clinton. It was, they kept saying, the ultimate insult. To most people, this attitude toward Mr. Clinton might seem a little out of proportion. But ever since he spent seven months lying about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, the president's personal reputation has made him an easy target for any critics. So it doesn't raise many eyebrows when Charlton Heston, the right-wing movie actor who is now president of the NRA, makes a commercial in which he accuses Mr. Clinton of lying on the gun control issue. Calling the president a liar is tame stuff these days.

More is involved, however, in the braying of Mr. Heston, Mr. LaPierre and their allies in Congress. They clearly fear the gun control issue is one that Al Gore can use against Mr. Bush and one that Democrats can use against Republicans in critical House of Representatives contests.

Mr. LaPierre made the point when he said of Mr. Clinton, "I've come to believe that he needs a certain level of violence in this country. He is willing to accept a certain level of killing to further his political agenda, and his vice president, too."

As a general matter, the electorate agrees with Mr. Clinton on gun control. But the issue is far more politically meaningful in some parts of the country than in others. And these areas include states and congressional districts seen as important battlegrounds in November.

Pennsylvania is a case in point. It is the largest of the big swing states in presidential campaigns, and this year there is a strong Democratic challenge to Republican Sen. Rick Santorum. At least three House districts could go either way.

But Pennsylvania is also a state in which the gun issue has a lot of sting. The state is second only to Texas in the hunting licenses it sells. And many of those hunters are nominally Democrats in the southwestern part of the state, who will listen to the NRA. For the gun lobby and the Republican Party alike, causing a strong turnout in his group is critical.

On the face of it, the current NRA argument is ludicrous. It insists that Mr. Clinton and, by extension, Mr. Gore are failing to enforce gun laws on the books and trying to cover up their inadequacy by seeking such further measures as safety locks and a 72-hour waiting period on guns purchased at gun shows. But the debate over gun control has never been one characterized by logic.

The NRA seems willing to take the heat that otherwise might be directed at Republicans who control Congress and manage to smother serious attempts to outlaw the kind of guns that seem to turn up in a fresh tragedy every week.

But the notion that the president "needs a certain level of violence in this country" for political purposes goes far beyond the usual level of debate.

That is the case even in a society in which notions of civility in politics are a thing of the past.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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