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The real history of guns and the 2000 election

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"Guns" was an issue in the 2000 elections. Contrary to the conventional wisdom among the punditry, the candidate who was running scared on the gun issue in 2000 wasn't Al Gore. It was George Bush.

I know it for a fact. Believe me, I do. I started working on state legislative issues at Handgun Control Inc. in April of 1994. I knew every position on guns that "Governor" George Bush had ever taken. That's why it was so startling to watch him creep to the anti-gun center in 2000. He even supported renewing the federal assault weapons ban, and that was huge. The assault weapons ban was the "third rail" for the NRA, the issue you did not cross them on - but Bush did it anyway. In fact, Bush's 2000 run for president was probably one of the first times the NRA supported a candidate who supported the ban on AK-47s, Uzi and high capacity magazines.

I lived through this, so I know it's true - but it was also well documented. Frank Bruni wrote a piece on March 18, 2000 in The New York Times titled "Bush Moves a Little Away From the N.R.A.'s Positions." The article is in the Times archives, but here are a few paragraphs:

Long considered an opponent of significant new gun control and a faithful friend of the National Rifle Association, Gov. George W. Bush seems to be taking small steps away from the powerful organization and signaling a greater receptiveness to additional restrictions on firearms.

Several times over the last few days, Mr. Bush expressed support for two measures -- the mandatory sale of trigger locks with new handguns and the implementation of ''smart gun'' technology -- that the rifle organization has frequently criticized.

Even more striking, Mr. Bush openly criticized the N.R.A.'s executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, for his recent assertions that President Clinton, rather than vigorously prosecuting the laws, tolerated a certain level of gun violence to keep his public crusade for gun control on the front burner.

''I don't think the N.R.A. was right to characterize the president the way they did,'' Mr. Bush said in an interview at the governor's mansion here on Wednesday.
Jake Tapper, who is now with ABC News, wrote a similar piece for Salon on May 17, 2000:
On Friday, right before the Million Mom March in favor of more gun laws, Bush came out in favor of giving away thousands of trigger locks for anyone who wants one, an apparatus he has pooh-pooohed in the past. He also did and said absolutely nothing last year when two pieces of state legislation -- both requiring that guns be sold with trigger locks -- were introduced.

"That's a huge change for him," says Sudbay. "It seems to be a very crass political move timed in conjunction with the Million Mom March and also to diminish his very pro-gun record."

"I think he saw himself being pushed out on one of the wings when he got embroiled with [Sen. John] McCain and he saw that his best way to regain support was to shift back to the center," says TSRA's Talbot.

Why would Bush try to gloss over his previous strong support for the NRA's agenda? Obviously for votes. One of the few polls taken in the last few months that had Gore leading was conducted by ABC News immediately after Robinson's comments, showing Gore with an edge, 46 percent to 38 percent. Clearly, Bush is worried, otherwise he wouldn't have had his handlers rush to book him on NBC's "Today" show to announce his new free-trigger-lock entitlement program for gun owners.
So what happened that the pundits, and the media, now think guns was ever a losing issue?

George Bush, you'll recall, won the election in 2000 by portraying himself as a uniter, not a divider. His move to the center on guns fit with that rhetoric. Candidate Al Gore, however, stopped talking about guns altogether. Just stopped. In February of 2000, one of Gore's top aides was screaming at me that they needed Sarah Brady's endorsement in the primaries pronto. But come the summer, we didn't exist.

Bush was afraid of the gun issue politically, but Gore, on the advice of his "brain trust," was the candidate who ran from the issue. That was a double whammy. Gore lost the ability to attack Bush for signing the law that allowed handguns to be carried in churches, nursing homes and amusement parks. At the same time, Gore, who was being challenged for having no core beliefs, looked like he was hiding his true positions (sound familiar?). That left Bush's "he was for guns before he was kind-of against them" record unchallenged while comporting with a growing sense that Al Gore had no core.

Again, Jake Tapper captured the moment for Salon. As you'll read, Tapper talked to an executive at a gun control group who was, in fact, me. If I knew the damage their idiotic positioning would create, I would have blasted him even more strongly:
But one executive of a Washington organization concerned with this issue says that Gore is misreading these swing voters. If so, Gore's attempt to portray himself as having little opinion about the issue is not only disingenuous but politically stupid.

Though the executive, who did not wish to be named, agrees that Gore shouldn't be making his positions on guns a major talking point, he thinks that Gore's failure to portray Bush as an extremist on this issue has been a "missed opportunity."

The executive points to the fact that many swing states have rejected the NRA's position on concealed-carry laws, which allow individuals to carry loaded, concealed weapons in public. One of the first bills Bush signed into law as governor of Texas was a concealed-carry law. Bush went so far as to amend the law, the first of its kind in Texas in 125 years, to let licensees carry their loaded guns into churches, amusement parks and nursing homes.

This mindset, the executive argues, is foreign to the swing voters Bush and Gore are fighting for.

Gun law battles in key swing states attest to that idea. Despite NRA lobbying, there are no concealed-carry laws in Wisconsin, Ohio or Illinois. Recent attempts to weaken the requirements for concealed-carry licensees in Minnesota and Michigan have gone nowhere. A 1998 referendum on closing the "gun show loophole" in Florida passed with 72 percent support.

Last year in the bellwether state of Missouri, gun law advocates such as Handgun Control Inc. were outspent by the NRA more than 4-to-1 in a concealed-carry battle. Nevertheless, the NRA position, opposed by the late Gov. Mel Carnahan, lost.
After the elections, the Democratic brain trust immediately blamed the gun issue for their election losses. In today's Salon piece, Alex Koppelmann explained how former Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-MO) was one of the first to lay the blame for the 2000 election losses on guns. I always found that interesting, because in the 1998 election, the Gephardt campaign called Handgun Control the Friday before the election begging for Sarah Brady to cut a radio ad for them to run over the weekend. Of course, she did.

It was painful to watch this all play out. But, this is what Democrats do far too often. They take an issue that the GOP fears and somehow turn it (or allow it to be turned) against themselves. People vote for candidates who have convictions -- but, too often, Democrats run from their convictions.

Lots of people are deifying Al Gore these days, but in 2000, he ran a bad campaign. He never should have lost to George Bush. He ran from Bill Clinton, who, by the way, never backed away from the gun issue. But Gore didn't become president, and the Democrats didn't take back the House, so guns became the culprit. (Interestingly, the Democrats did take back the Senate by defeating pro-NRA candidates in Washington, Missouri, Michigan, Delaware and Florida.)

All those pundits and commentators who so glibly claim that guns was the losing issue in 2000 should really do their homework. Sometimes the conventional wisdom is wrong (e.g., George Bush is a popular president). And sometimes, it's even deadly.

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