Sniper shootings now topic in race

Ehrlich says Townsend is playing on fears

guns always an issue, she says

Election 2002

October 13, 2002|By Sarah Koenig and David Nitkin | Sarah Koenig and David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. accused his Democratic opponent yesterday of trying to capitalize on the fear that has seeped into the Washington suburbs since the serial killings began, but Kathleen Kennedy Townsend responded that the congressman was trying to deflect attention from his own pro-gun record.

Campaigning in Prince George's County yesterday, the location of one of the sniper shootings, Ehrlich said Townsend's latest television ad, which includes an image of assault weapons, was inflammatory. The commercial - which began running in the Washington suburbs late last week - points out the Republican congressman's gun control votes.

"Gun control is always a legitimate issue, especially when you've got a domestic terrorist running around," Ehrlich said. "But two days ago, the lieutenant governor said she wouldn't politicize this issue. It appears the lieutenant governor has violated her word."

Townsend was stern when asked about the accusation: "Don't talk to me about politicization," she said, adding that she has been an advocate for gun control for years, a position that stems from the murder of her father, Robert F. Kennedy.

"I've known extraordinary pain," she said.

The question of just how to respond to the sniper attacks has been a sticky one for both camps. Each is trying to take the moral high ground by insisting it is inappropriate to seek political advantage from tragedies. But the more they talk, the more politics intrudes.

Ehrlich said he had not seen the ad in question, but that he had seen Townsend speaking about the issue in a recent television interview.

In addition to criticizing his record on education and the environment, the ad refers to Ehrlich's congressional vote to lift a ban on assault weapons, and a 1988 General Assembly vote against banning cheaply made handguns called Saturday night specials. It is the first new commercial to mention guns since the shootings began.

"I think people will draw their own conclusions," Ehrlich said.

Townsend and her aides said yesterday that her campaign had been talking about the gun issue before the shootings, and does not see a need to stop.

"The public has the right to know because it goes to the heart of the differences between these two candidates who are running to be chief executive of this state," said Townsend spokesman Peter Hamm.

"It's really unfortunate that he would accuse her of politicizing the situation when it's possible that what is going on here is he is trying to politicize the situation by using these tragic circumstances as a shield against talking about his own record," Hamm said.

The day the sniper shootings began, for instance, Ehrlich released a statement saying: "Maryland has some of the most restrictive and progressive gun laws in the nation that must be used to track and prosecute these killers. ... Politics has no place in the investigation or outcome of these crimes, today or in the future."

Some in Townsend's camp accused Ehrlich of inserting politics into the events by even bringing it up.

Since the shootings began, Ehrlich's gun record has become a topic of increasing interest to suburban Washington voters. In Laurel yesterday, Joan Fitzgerald, a retired management analyst, waited for Ehrlich to arrive so she could ask him about his comments questioning the effectiveness of ballistic fingerprinting - a state program that gathers data on every handgun sold legally in Maryland.

Ehrlich said last month that as governor he would assess whether the program was working or was a waste of money.

"If we had that fingerprinting [for rifles], that guy wouldn't be free right now," Fitzgerald said of the sniper.

Townsend said yesterday she was considering expanding the program - which now applies to handguns - to include records of rifles and similar weapons of the type apparently used by the sniper.

She first mentioned the idea during a meeting with Washington Post journalists last week, and said she has asked Maryland State Police Superintendent David B. Mitchell to examine its costs. "I think it's worthwhile exploring it, and now we're going to explore it," Townsend said.

Ehrlich said yesterday he would not rule out such an expansion.

At a bull roast in Bowie, campaign volunteer Trudy Neff asked Ehrlich what she should say to friends who have been asking her about his gun record since they began seeing gun ads aired by Townsend and advocacy groups.

"You tell them it appears they've decided to take advantage of a terrorist act," he said to her, adding that she should also refer them to his campaign Web site.

At a firefighter event for children in Bowie, Diana Peltier and her two sons, ages 2 and 5, were wearing Ehrlich stickers, but Peltier, who works in marketing, said she was unsure whom she would vote for.

The issue that concerns her most is usually education. "Now safety seems just as important," she said. "I wasn't paying attention much to the issue before. To me, it's not so much about gun control ... but people are definitely starting to look at that."

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