WASHINGTON -- Ten years ago, when a man armed with a pistol shot seven tourists on the observation deck at the Empire State Building, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani responded with an unequivocal call for more federal gun control.
"The United States Congress needs to pass uniform licensing for everyone carrying a gun. Congress must do more," said Giuliani, then a leading proponent of gun control.
This week, presidential candidate Giuliani reacted to the Virginia Tech massacre in a very different way - with an expression of grief.
Powerful events like the shootings in Blacksburg often turn out to be pivotal tests for the nation's leaders and can influence voter attitudes in unpredictable ways. The Virginia Tech tragedy is likely to focus attention on one of the most emotional issues in modern politics - gun control - at a key moment in the 2008 presidential campaign.
In the wake of the shootings, the presidential candidates canceled their scheduled public events, including Giuliani, who was to have campaigned yesterday in Virginia and Maryland. Most, like Giuliani avoided commenting on the event, beyond expressing sympathy. Sen. Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat, spoke of the need to address the problem of violence in America's culture.
Alone among the major Republican contenders, Arizona Sen. John McCain coupled a statement of grief with a reaffirmation of his support for the Second Amendment's right to keep and bear arms. "This brutal attack was not caused by, nor should it lead to, restrictions on the Second Amendment," he said.
McCain's relatively consistent opposition to gun control might win him conservative votes in the GOP primaries. But it hasn't gained him the support of politically powerful gun groups, such as the National Rifle Association, which have criticized the senator bitterly over the years, particularly over his efforts to curb special-interest money in politics.
The NRA and other gun organizations also have problems with the other leading Republicans, to say nothing of the Democratic candidates.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, once known as a gun-control advocate, joined the NRA as a "lifetime" member last summer as he was gearing up his Republican presidential run (more recently, Romney embarrassed himself by claiming to have been a hunter "pretty much all my life," though he'd only been hunting twice). However, in his 2002 campaign for governor, he vowed not to "chip away" at his state's strict regulation of guns, and his shift on the issue is often cited as part of a broader move to the right by Romney on social questions, including abortion.
Giuliani, a prominent gun-control advocate for two decades, regularly criticized Florida and other Southern states for making it easier to buy a gun than to get a driver's license. Today, he no longer talks about the stiffer federal regulations he once championed and says states should be left to decide what their gun laws should be.
With voters just getting acquainted with the presidential candidates, increased attention to the gun issue could "fill in some of the blanks on some of these candidates," said Nelson Warfield, a Republican campaign consultant. "If this sheds a spotlight on Giuliani's past support for gun control and his effort to waffle since then, it's going to be a problem for him."
The Democratic presidential contenders, and particularly Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, are widely seen as supportive of stricter federal gun laws. An exception: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who won praise from gun owners for backing a state law that requires the issuance of concealed-weapons permits to adults who pass a background check and take a gun-safety class.
Despite their past support for tougher gun regulations, Democratic candidates might not be eager to promote that issue in the 2008 election.
Vice President Al Gore's defeat in 2000 was blamed, in no small part, on his support for gun controls. Last fall, Democrats took notice when Jim Webb was elected to the Senate from Virginia after wooing rural voters as a strong Second Amendment supporter and handgun enthusiast (a top Webb aide was arrested last month when he attempted to carry a loaded pistol into the Capitol complex).
A spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence acknowledged that "there has been some tentativeness" by Democratic politicians on the issue. Ladd Everitt, the group's communications director, said advocates have been disappointed that Congress failed to act after the Columbine High School massacre eight years ago in Colorado and the deadly shooting at an Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pa., in October, and isn't overly optimistic now.
"I think the problem is, we're presented with a false choice, which is that if we want to have reasonable gun policies in the United States, we necessarily have to disarm law-abiding citizens," he said. "That's simply not true."