Countering criticism on gun checks

Campaign Ad Watch

October 30, 2002|By David Nitkin

Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend began airing a TV ad last week that seeks to counter criticism from Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. that the Glendening-Townsend administration had failed to perform some criminal-background checks on gun buyers. It is airing in the Baltimore and Washington markets.

What the ad says: It opens with an image from an Ehrlich commercial, and shows a newspaper headline reading "Ehrlich Assails Rival on Gun Issue."

"Now Bob Ehrlich is trying to blame crime and gun violence in Maryland on Kathleen Kennedy Townsend," an announcer says. "In fact, for years, she's worked to protect our families and children from crime, and taken on the NRA."

"The truth? Ehrlich doesn't want to enforce gun laws. He wants to repeal them," the announcer says. The screen shows other newspaper headlines. "Ehrlich Against Gun Act," reads one.

"He's voted to repeal the assault weapons ban. Opposed current background checks for buying a gun. Refuses to support ballistic fingerprinting of assault weapons and other firearms to help police solve crime.

"Ehrlich. The NRA candidate for governor." The ad ends with a photo of Ehrlich next to a large logo of the National Rifle Association.

The facts: For four months this year, Maryland was not performing some criminal background checks for handgun purchases as required by federal law. The state archivist decided not to perform checks of paper records before 1982 due to lack of funds; more recent electronic records were checked.

Townsend has been a strong supporter of gun-control measures, dating to 1988, when she wrote an impassioned fund-raising letter during a referendum campaign over the state's ban of cheaply made handguns known as Saturday night specials, the type of weapon used to kill her father, Robert F. Kennedy.

During the campaign, Ehrlich has called for better enforcement of the state's existing gun laws. He has also said that the state has more than 300 gun laws on the books, and they should be reviewed for effectiveness. He singled out the ballistic fingerprinting program, and the state's handgun review board, although he has not called for the repeal of any specific law.

Ehrlich has questioned the cost of the ballistic program -- one of two in the nation -- and says it has yet to prove itself as an effective tool in fighting crime.

During the sniper crisis, Townsend called for an expansion of the program to include assault-style weapons. Ehrlich said he would consider an expansion if it could be shown to be effective.

As a member of Congress, he voted in 1996 to repeal a ban on assault weapons. In 1994, during his first run for Congress, he wrote a fund-raising letter that harshly criticized the state's gun-control laws.

The National Rifle Association has not endorsed Ehrlich in the governor's race, but gave him a "B" rating this year. In 2000, he received an "A" grade for his career voting record.

Analysis: The ad was produced within hours of an Ehrlich commercial criticizing Townsend on background checks, demonstrating the Townsend campaign's desire to let no claim that could benefit their opponent go unanswered.

The background check issue looks bad for the Glendening-Townsend administration, and Townsend has been the administration's point-person on crime. Democrats point out that the state archivist is not under direct executive branch control because it is an independent agency. Townsend's campaign believes more attention on gun issues works in her favor, especially among undecided voters in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

Democrats are making an assumption by equating Ehrlich's call to review laws as a short step removed from repealing them; Republicans strongly disagree.

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