WASHINGTON – Forget sporting a hunting rifle and camouflage flak jacket -- Republican candidates wanting to prove their credibility with the gun rights lobby may have that opportunity as the Virginia Tech murders this week begin reviving a national debate over gun laws.
"(The Republican candidates) must appeal to folks like me to get my vote. I don't expect them to be calling for further gun control," said Jeff Soyer, who runs www.Alphecca.com, a Web log popular with supporters of the Second Amendment guarantee for individuals to bear arms.
"Simply put," Soyer said, "there is no law that could be enacted that would have prevented this tragedy. You can't legislate against insanity."
While leading Democratic candidates like Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama did not raise the specter of gun control legislation in recent statements about the Virginia Tech tragedy, which ended in the deaths of 33 people on Monday, Republican sources, including the White House, have already waded into the thorny issue of gun rights.
"The president believes that there is a right for people to bear arms, but that all laws must be followed," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Monday in answer to a question on where President Bush stands on the issue.
A day later, as the president and first lady Laura Bush attended the campus convocation in Blacksburg, Va., Perino was more circumspect on the political implications of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.
"We understand that there's going to be, and there has been, an ongoing national discussion, conversation and debate about gun control policy. Of course we are going to be participants in that conversation," she said. "Today, however, is a day that is time to focus on the families, the school, the community."
Presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, who has enjoyed a mixed record with the gun advocates, was the first of any leading GOP hopeful to insist what happened this week would not shake his belief in the Second Amendment.
"I do believe in the constitutional right that everyone has — in the Second Amendment to the Constitution — to carry a weapon," he said in response to a reporter's question. "Obviously, we have to keep guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens."
The nation's biggest advocate for gun ownership, the National Rifle Association, preferred to keep out of the fray in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, saying it would refrain from comment beyond expressing its condolences to the victims and families, "until all facts are known."
While Democratic presidential candidates may be holding back, some Democratic lawmakers and gun control advocates who have seen their cause languish on Capitol Hill during the Bush administration, have already expressed that it was time to turn that around.
"I believe this will reignite the dormant effort to pass common sense gun regulations in this nation," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who unsuccessfully sponsored renewal of the assault weapons ban after it expired in 2004.
Denis Henigan, spokesman for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, one of the biggest gun control advocates in the United States, said the presidential campaign, and all of political discourse, should be affected by what happened this week.
"I think the horror of what happened at Virginia Tech is going to make it hard for presidential candidates to avoid," he said, believing public sentiment will now be open to taking a closer look at policies like the now-defunct assault weapons ban.
"I think it creates a real dilemma, particularly for Republicans candidates," Henigan said. "The Republican Party has become so heavily dependent on NRA support in recent years."
David Kopel, a Second Amendment expert with the Colorado-based Independence Institute, warned against candidates lining up to say what they feel their constituencies — on either side of the aisle — want to hear.
"I would hope the presidential candidates would continue to promote the gun policies they sincerely think are the best for America and not the ones they think are politically expedient," he said, noting that Democrats have been just as guilty as Republicans, trying to pander to the gun control crowd by using highly emotional situations to underscore the need for stricter laws.
"What we saw after Columbine," he said, referring to the April 1999 killing spree by two suburban Colorado teens that ended in the deaths of 12 students, a teacher and themselves, "was a situation in which gun control was extremely popular, but it turned out it cost (former Vice President) Al Gore the election because, in part, a lot of law abiding gun owners resent … being scape-goated for the actions of psychopaths."
Some analysts suggest that Gore lost his 2000 bid by casting, as Senate president, the deciding vote in favor of closing the so-called gun show "loophole" — requiring background checks by private gun sellers at gun shows. That is debatable, but it's clear that since then, some presidential candidates have gone out of their way to prove their bona fides with the NRA crowd.
For example, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, was mocked in 2004 after a photo-op hunting pheasant in Iowa. Observers complained Kerry looked ill-suited to the role as hunter and the awkwardness had the opposite effect on gun enthusiasts, who were already behind Republican candidate Bush.
More recently, Republican Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney was chided for boasting about a lifetime passion for hunting. The former Massachusetts governor was later forced to explain why no hunting licenses could be found bearing his name. He pointed out that one doesn't need a license to hunt small animals like rabbits in his home state of Utah.
"This dance that people go through — it strikes me as very silly and over the top and unnecessary," said Erick Erickson, head of the political Web log RedState.com. "People are much more interested in whether you believe in the Second Amendment than they are about whether you hunt."
Soyer, who does not hunt but enjoys target shooting, agreed.
"What appeals to us is a solid past record of voting for issues of importance … especially a record against gun control," he said.
Henigan said the image-building is counterproductive but for a different reason. "The real hazard is of becoming too identified with the extremism of the NRA" and beholden to their legislative priorities.
But observers note that while gun control groups will be putting pressure on candidates, Republicans looking at the 40 million NRA membership, as well as Democrats seeking broad support from moderate and even conservative voters, may be still inclined to resist.
Comments Tuesday by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., may foreshadow the tension to come. He urged lawmakers to "take a deep breath" and not rush into anything, during a briefing with reporters.
"Let’s wait for the facts to come in before we jump to conclusions about what we could have done, what we should have done," he said, " or what we will do."