Guns At Their Backs

Election '04

The Senate is poised to pass legislation today that would immunize gun manufacturers from civil lawsuits. But by agreeing to support the measure --with amendments attached to renew the assault weapons ban and close the gun show loophole -- Democrats are sacrificing long-held principles for short-term electoral gains.

Democrats supporting the amended bill include no less than Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., Minority Whip Harry Reid, D-Nev.,and Democratic Policy Committee Chair Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. They've convinced themselves that swallowing a bad bill is worth the price of passing two of their legislative priorities -- renewing the assault weapons ban, which President Clinton pushed through Congress in 1994, and closing the gun-show loophole. As Daschle said in a statement, the amended legislation "is a commonsense measure."

The Senate bill would prohibit civil lawsuits from being filed against gun manufacturers and dealers whose guns are used in crimes as long as the manufacturers and dealers don't sell defective weapons or break any laws. The amendments, which Democrats will try to attach, would outlaw 19 types of semiautomatic weapons and require unlicensed gun dealers to do background checks on purchasers at gun shows.

In reality, however, Democrats' support has much more to do with picking up support at the ballot box this fall. That's why Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the presumptive nominee, has said that he enjoys hunting and has talked about his support of the Second Amendment. When former Gov. Howard Dean, D-Vt., was the presidential frontrunner, he touted his support from the National Rifle Association.

Worried that opposing the bill will cost the party seats in Congress, as it did in 1994, and hurt the presidential nominee in southern states this year, Democrats have bent over backward to support a measure that they're clearly not comfortable with. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who offered the extension of the assault weapons ban, admitted to The New York Times that she'd rather be able to do that and oppose the immunity legislation. "It's a tricky situation," she said.

But many Democrats feel they have little choice. A memo from Democratic pollster Mark Penn, Jonathan Cowan of Americans for Gun Safety and former Al Gore campaign aide Doug Hattaway -- which was was handed out to Senate Democrats and candidates -- said that Democrats must pass the bill in order to reach out to union members and pick up states that Bush won in 2000, according to Roll Call.

"Silence on the gun issue only hardens voters' negative perceptions of Democrats," the memo states. "To earn increased gun owner trust, Democrats must pro-actively define their current positions on guns -- as Second Amendment Democrats, who back tough enforcement of all federal gun laws and support centrist gun policies."

The memo also noted that Bush won in 2000 in states where an average of 53 percent of voters owned guns, compared to 39 percent in states Gore won, according to Roll Call. A poll of gun owners this year found Bush ahead by a similar margin.

Yet in their haste to score a few extra political points this fall, Democrats are ignoring their own political beliefs as well as the advice of experts, such the Major Cities Chiefs Association. In an ad this week in The Washington Post funded by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence with the Million Mom March, Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Bratton pleaded with senators to oppose the bill. The ad notes more than half the guns used in crimes are supplied by 1 percent of gun dealers. And as lawyer David Boies wrote in an opinion letter to the Brady Campaign, "If the legislation were to pass, sellers of products that are among the most dangerous products would have the least obligation to act reasonably."

Of course, compromise is necessary to pass legislation; it's what keeps the wheels of government turning. But Democrats should realize any benefit from passing these amendments isn't worth the greater cost of supporting a bill that could end lives. As the Brady Campaign ad noted, a gun supply store in Tacoma, Wash., "'lost' the assault rifle used by the D.C. area snipers to murder 12 people."

Besides, the 2004 election is not going to hinge on whether Democrats support or oppose the overall bill. Bush is going to take credit for enacting it, anyway. And if he wins this fight, Bush is going to look to other social issues -- such as gay marriage -- to drive a wedge between the parties. If Democrats start compromising on their principles now, they open up a slippery and dangerous slope, and risk alienating the party's base.

Allowing themselves to be cowed by Republicans has never been a smart strategy for Democrats. As voters have demonstrated, when they're faced with a choice between the real thing and an imitation, they'll go for the true product. Democrats don't score any extra points on leadership by going along with the GOP just because that's what they think voters want.

Lawmakers would be much smarter to oppose the overall bill and work to pass the amendments separately. And even if the amended bill is passed by the Senate, House Republicans, such as Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, have pledged to oppose the changes. Should Republicans again shut Democrats out of conference committee negotiations, Democrats could face a situation of backing a bill they never liked in the first place and handing Republicans a victory without getting anything in return. And that's neither smart governing nor smart politics.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill.

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