John Kerry (searchaccused presidential rival Howard Dean (searchFriday of taking positions on gun safety that put the interests of the National Rifle Association ahead of the safety of children and families.

Kerry, a Massachusetts senator, criticized Dean's 1992 statement to the National Rifle Association (search) that he opposed any restriction on private ownership of assault weapons.

"Howard Dean's opposition to sensible gun safety measures ... is indefensible," Kerry said in a statement. "It explains why he has been endorsed by the NRA eight times. I believe we must put the safety of our children and families ahead of special interests like the NRA."

Kerry said he would "never pander to the extremist NRA for personal or political expediency. I will beat the NRA."

Dean said Friday in Durham, N.H.: "I don't respond to that silly kind of Washington talk."

"I come from a rural state with a very low homicide rate," Dean told reporters. "We had five homicides one year. It's a state where hunting is a part of our life. I understand that's not the traditional Democratic position."

Dean said, "When you're running for governor, they ask you what you would do in your state."

Dean aides told The New York Times for a Friday story that the opposition to restrictions on assault weapons that he expressed on the signed 1992 NRA questionnaire applied only to a state ban, defined broadly enough to also apply to shotguns commonly used by hunters in Vermont.

Dean assures voters on the campaign trail this year that he supports the federal assault weapons ban (search) enacted under President Bill Clinton in 1994.

While many Democratic primary voters support federal restrictions on gun ownership, there is less support for those restrictions among swing voters and Democrats in conservative states. Democratic nominee Al Gore lost several states in 2000 where gun control (search) is not popular.

Centrist Democrats have warned that the party's candidates need to adopt a stance that recognizes the rights of gun owners, while pushing for gun safety laws. They warn that candidates who are aggressive in challenging gun owners without also defending their right to own a gun will be at a substantial disadvantage in rural and conservative states.

Kerry was in Iowa for part of the day Friday, accompanying a pheasant hunting trip.