Gunning for the White House

If you were to peruse the official website for John Kerry's presidential campaign these days, you might be a bit surprised by what you find.

Amidst headlines and headshots of the candidate proclaiming his support for such standard Democratic issues as peace in Iraq, middle-class tax relief and women's rights, there's a link with the somewhat incongruous title Sportsmen for Kerry. If you click on it, you're whisked to a new page and greeted by a rather amusing photo of Kerry wearing a screaming orange hunting vest, an enormous rifle slung over his shoulder, staring intently at some sort of dead animal held by a man next to him.

The picture of Kerry the hunter, and for that matter, the entire 'Sportsmen for Kerry' site -- which touts Kerry's firm belief in Americans' right to bear arms and also in gun control -- underscores an important point. With a nail-biter election all but certain, neither candidate can afford to take any issue for granted.

Such an approach even holds true with guns, where the lines have long been drawn between Democrats and Republicans and where the omnipotent gun lobby has been racking up Republican votes for as long as anyone can remember. Indeed, with crucial swing states up for grabs like West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Ohio -- each with a high percentage of gun owners -- John Kerry and George Bush have begun an awkward political duel over the gun issue with varying degrees of success.

"The electorate is so evenly divided, that both candidates are having to walk this tightrope where they're simultaneously playing to their base and to the center to win over swing voters," says Kristin Goss, an expert on gun control and a visiting assistant professor of government at Georgetown.

Kerry, says Goss, is portraying himself as a sensible warrior and life-long hunter (hence the Sportsmen for Kerry site), and subsequently trying to mollify the moderate gun owners who shake their heads when their right-leaning compatriots gush about Glock 9s and AK-47s. At the same time, Kerry is keeping his Democratic base in line by bad mouthing the conservative NRA whenever he gets a chance.

Bush, on the other hand, wants to extend the Clinton-era ban on assault weapons which expires in September -- a moderate and highly popular position. But on April 17, he dispatched Dick Cheney, champion of the solider of fortune types, to the 133rd annual convention of the NRA in Pittsburgh; Cheney responded by whipping the crowd into a frenzy with statements like, "John Kerry's approach to the Second Amendment has been to regulate, regulate and regulate some more."

Despite the angry rhetoric coming from the right, some say that Kerry could have the edge with the gun lobby -- if he plays his Vietnam experience right.

Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at the State University of New York at Cortland and author of The Politics of Gun Control, says "Clinton tried the same thing, saying he was a hunter and used guns, but it didn't help him much," says Spitzer. "But this could help Kerry, because not only is he an active hunter and has talked about basic gun rights for honest gun owners, but he is also a war veteran. There is a certain respect among people with guns for Kerry because he fought in a combat unit and understands what guns are about."

Conversely, Bush has already faced a backlash from some gun owners outraged over his 2000 election year vow to extend the ban on assault weapons; he has since remained virtually mute about the issue (you won't find one word on the Bush/Cheney '04 website). And while Republicans will undoubtedly block any legislated extension of the ban before it gets to the Senate floor, Spitzer says that if the debate stays in the spotlight, it could put the president in an unenviable conundrum given that 66 percent of gun owners approve of the ban but groups like the NRA loathe it.

For its part, NRA leadership has tried to downplay their differences with Bush. "We disagree with him on this issue, but on numerous other important issues, affecting law abiding gun owners, he has been very supportive," says NRA spokeswoman Kelly Hobbs.

Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, whose 300,000 members is significantly smaller than the NRA's 4 million, is less diplomatic. "What in the world would possess a Republican president to do anything that would jeopardize his second amendment base when that's what put him in office?" he bristles. "It would be disaster for the president [if the ban was signed]. You'd be able to hear people throwing up in gun clubs across the country."

Both Hobbs and Pratt agree that none of their following will likely be seduced by Kerry -- both the NRA and Gun Owners of America gave Kerry a failing grade as a Senator because he voted for numerous gun control measures and most recently, opposed legislation that would make gun companies exempt from lawsuits, a huge issue for the gun lobby. Nonetheless, Pratt notes that some members of his group have already talked about boycotting Bush, although the outcry has yet to become a chorus.

According to an April 13 Los Angeles Times story on Bush's rocky relationship with gun groups, between 75 and 80 million Americans own guns and as many as 10 million of them are willing to cast their vote based on gun-related issues. Still, only a small fraction of gun owners are members of groups like the NRA and Gun Owners of America -- and the faction's potential boycott of Bush at the polls would not mean that those votes would go to Kerry.

All of this could mean two things, as both campaigns intensify their appeal to swing voters in the coming months: Kerry, with his orange vest and military credo, might very will sway the minds of some of the 'salt of the earth sportsmen,' as Kristin Goss calls them. And Bush might very well lose support from some of those Second Amendment stalwarts if the ban on automatic weapons becomes a political hot potato.

Come high noon in November, the gangly Bostonian with the hunting rifle and the swaggering Texan with the loose trigger finger will finally fight face to face, and every vote will count. Who falls first into the D.C. dust remains to be seen.

Dan Frosch is a freelance journalist based in New York City. He's been on staff at the San Gabriel Valley Weekly section of the Los Angeles Times, The Source magazine, the Pacific Palisadian Post and most recently the Santa Fe Reporter.

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