John Kerry (search) owns a shotgun and a rifle, has taken time from the campaign trail to go hunting and relied on firearms during the Vietnam War. But the Democratic presidential candidate's fondness for his guns will not save him from a political assault by the National Rifle Association (search).
The 4 million-strong NRA could be an obstacle in Kerry's bid for the presidency, not simply because of the size of its membership but because of the significance of the states where those people live. About one-fourth of NRA members live in West Virginia, Ohio, Florida, Michigan, Missouri and Pennsylvania — all battleground states with 101 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.
The NRA says it doesn't matter how many guns the Massachusetts senator owns or how often he hunts because he nearly always votes against gun rights in the Senate. Kerry supports extending the ban on assault-type weapons and requiring background checks at gun shows. He opposes granting gun makers immunity from civil lawsuits.
"His anti-firearms record is among the very worst in American politics," said NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre (search). "It's not a stretch to say that the worst thing that could happen to the Second Amendment is for John Kerry to be elected president."
Kerry called that claim "the phoniest argument I've ever heard in my life." He said he has been hunting since he was 12 and invited LaPierre to come along and see for himself.
"If he wants to come hunting with me one day, as long as he agreed not to turn the gun on me, I'd be happy to," Kerry said in an interview this week with reporters and editors from The Associated Press.
It's unlikely Kerry and LaPierre will become hunting buddies anytime soon.
In the May edition of "America's 1st Freedom," the magazine for NRA members, LaPierre wrote a lengthy article criticizing the Democrat.
The cover photo shows Kerry giving a thumbs-up, standing with fellow Senate Democrats Charles Schumer of New York, Dianne Feinstein of California and Edward M. Kennedy (search) of Massachusetts after they passed a 10-year ban on assault weapons. The cover reads, "John Kerry to Gun Owners: STICK IT!" and notes that Kerry's vote on the gun bill was one of only a few he's cast during the campaign this year.
The article portrays Kerry as a rich man who doesn't care about regular hunters and gun owners, but was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and has an heiress wife who gives to charities that support gun control.
All this comes before the NRA has even endorsed President Bush and begun its most intensive election-year campaigning. The organization backed Bush in 2000 and reports spending more than $12 million to help him defeat Democrat Al Gore.
In that election, roughly half of voters were from gun-owner households, and they voted for Bush by 61 percent to 36 percent, according to exit polls. The voters from non-gun-owner households, voted for Gore, 58-to-39.
Gore's aides acknowledged the organization's advertising, mailings and get-out-the-vote rallies hurt him, especially among pro-gun union members in swing states. Kerry's campaign is bracing for a similar fight.
"We're confident that John Kerry is a lifelong hunter, gun owner," said Kerry adviser Tad Devine. "It's going to be very difficult to paint him in the same kind of corner into which Al Gore was painted by the NRA."
Kerry made the same point on a campaign stop in West Virginia last month.
"If you told me today was the first day of turkey season, I would have been out hunting," he told mine workers.
LaPierre said the NRA will make an another endorsement in September, and made it clear that it would be for Bush despite the organization's disagreement with his support for the ban on semiautomatic assault weapons. "I don't think there is any mystery about it given that John Kerry is the alternative," LaPierre said.
Kerry suggested it is the NRA that is out of touch, noting that Bush's father resigned from the organization when a fund-raising letter signed by LaPierre referred to federal agents as "jack-booted government thugs." And, Kerry said, while law enforcement supported the assault weapons ban, the NRA opposed it.
"I reject this notion that you cannot be reasonable in America with respect to the responsibilities that go with gun ownership," Kerry told the AP. "I support the Second Amendment, and I have no intention nor do I know anybody who's trying to undo it."