WASHINGTON – John Kerry's campaign Web site has pictures of him holding a gun and wearing hunter's orange. He describes to reporters not only the joy of the hunt, but also gutting and eating his kills.
That appeal may work on some gun owners who are deciding in November whether the gun-slinging Massachusetts senator is a better choice for president than George Bush.
But while President Bush may have his problems, many gun owners say that Kerry, with his long record of favoring gun-control legislation, is not a palatable alternative to the current president.
Bush is "not with us 100 percent of the time. He is with us 90 percent of the time. John Kerry is with us 0 percent of the time. Gun owners don’t have much of a choice," said Alan Gottlieb, chairman of the 650,000-member Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms (search).
Bush has rankled gun owners by expressing through spokesmen his support for reauthorizing the assault weapons ban (search), which is set to expire in September. Gun activists are also bothered by Patriot Act (search) legislation that they say is an imposition on personal freedom.
"Bush's problem is that he's been bumbling the issue. He does stand to lose the enthusiasm that he needs from the Second Amendment base and perhaps even lose the Reagan Democrats," said Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America (search), which has 300,000 members.
Pratt said gun rights is one of the key issues that could cause Democrats who liked the presidency of Ronald Reagan to go for another Republican candidate. He said Bush is in danger of losing their support, however, either by their turning to Kerry or staying home on Election Day.
Asked whether the Patriot Act will hurt Bush among gun owners, who fear individual liberties are being threatened by the anti-terror law, Pratt responded: "We think it ought to be a problem for him. He ought to respond and tell [Attorney General John] Ashcroft: 'Down John. Down John.'"
Pratt also warned that photos of Kerry in hunter's garb could damage Bush.
"I'm afraid it can resonate because out there he's seen killing birds. For the guy who's not aware of his voting record, which is 100 percent to ban guns," the Kerry strategy could work, he said. "The administration is going to have to counter a very effective spin campaign."
Gottlieb acknowledged that gun owners have some problems with Bush, but he predicted that Bush's support from gun owners would rise.
"While Al Gore was known to gun owners as anti-gun, John Kerry is known as anti-gun plus. And the example is that he broke off his campaigning to cast a vote against gun owner rights," Gottlieb said, referring to Kerry's March vote to renew the assault weapons ban (search) and to require background checks of purchasers buying guns at private shows. Both were amendments to legislation that would give gun manufacturers immunity from some lawsuits. The bill failed in the Senate.
Gottlieb expressed concern about the Patriot Act and Bush's failure to promote a stronger gun rights agenda, but he said he still believes the choice is obvious in this presidential race.
"I personally like the fact that there are a couple of people out there screaming, but when push comes to shove, everyone's going to vote for Bush. It would be foolish not to. It would be cutting off your nose to spite your face," Gottlieb said.
Alicia Wadas, president and founder of Mothers Arms (search), described the choice this way: "Many people are concerned with Bush, but they're more concerned with Kerry. Are we getting down to the lesser of two evils? I don’t know."
Gun owners are worth several percentage points in key states, said National Rifle Association (search) executive vice president Wayne LaPierre. These include swing states such as Pennsylvania, Arkansas, West Virginia, and elsewhere. Nationwide, 16 million hunters are licensed and 80 million gun owners live in America, LaPierre said.
Both campaigns have pledged to court gun owners. Aside from his Web site, Kerry has touted his activities as a sportsman at campaign stops. The Bush-Cheney campaign has regularly pledged its support for gun owners, most recently at the NRA's annual convention.
Speaking at the convention, Vice President Dick Cheney warned, "John Kerry's approach to the Second Amendment has been to regulate, regulate and then regulate some more."
Bush "has shown you respect, earned your vote and appreciates your support," Cheney continued to chants of "four more years."