Analysts: Gun Control a Non-Issue in 2004

Though a spate of gun violence has torn through schools and offices of late, hardly a word has been spoken on the campaign trail, angry moms are not marching and few lawmakers are waving their fists, leaving some to conclude that gun control is no longer a vital political issue.

Gun control advocates (search) blame a lack of media interest and an aggressive pro-gun lobby on the inattention to gun violence.

“The modus operandi of the gun lobby is to keep the discussion down,” said Eric Howard, spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Handgun Violence (search).

But supporters of gun rights (search) say pro-gun control Democrats have learned the hard way that a majority of Americans think current laws are strict enough.

“The Democrats have decided that the stove is still hot and they don’t want to get burned again,” said Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America (search). “Whatever the rhetoric had been it hasn’t been matched with what happened at the polling booth.”

Despite more than a half-dozen shootings between Sept. 25 and Oct. 6 in or around schools across the country -- a record that should have sent the media in a tailspin, say critics -- press accounts have not been used to resurrect the flagging issue of gun control.

And though Democrats have engaged in three nationally televised primary debates so far, little or no discussion has been made of where the candidates stand on the issue.

If anything, the Democratic debate in Baltimore, Md., on Sept. 9 featured a brief tussle over former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search)’s support of states’ rights on the issue. He has been a long defender of hunters in his home state.

“I would like to see the candidates talk about it more,” said Howard, who added that he is hopeful that the candidates will be forced to talk about it when they meet in Detroit on Oct. 26 for the second Congressional Black Caucus Institute-sponsored debate. That debate will air live on Fox News Channel.

Political experts say that tough gun control stances have done little to help out candidates in the last four years, including Vice President Al Gore (search), who lost to George W. Bush in the 2000 election. Groups like the National Rifle Association (search) have also been quite successful in turning out voters to the polls.

“I think there is a general feeling among many folks that this was a loser for Democrats in 2000, that it put up an impenetrable electoral wall around the South that Al Gore couldn’t penetrate,” said one source close to one of the Democratic primary campaigns.

“Most of the top-tier Democrats, with the exception of Howard Dean, are in the same place on gun control, but none of them are going to make it a main issue,” he added.

David Kopel, a gun rights advocate and fellow at the Colorado-based Independence Institute (search), said the candidates are merely taking a cue from voters.

“I think Americans are solidifying an attitude that has been there all along -- an attitude that is uncongenial to lots more gun control,” he said.

Much to the chagrin of gun control lobbyists on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures, current politics have not played well in their favor. They cite support by Democrats of a bill that would render gun manufacturers immune to lawsuits -- a cornerstone of their efforts to impose non-legislative controls on the gun industry in the last few years.

“It is a misuse of the civil justice system to try and punish honest, law-abiding people for illegal acts committed by others without their knowledge or involvement,” Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., a frequent critic of lax gun laws, said in September. He has joined nine Senate Democrats in supporting the bill.

“The only thing that will set the industry straight is with lawsuits,” Howard said. The Brady Campaign has argued that the bill -- which has already passed in the House -- would protect dealers like Bulls Eye Shooter Supply (search), which claimed it lost the Bushmaster (search) allegedly used last year by Washington, D.C.-area sniper defendants John Allen Muhammad (search) and Lee Boyd Malvo (search).

Since 1998, 33 municipalities, counties and states have attempted to sue gun manufacturers, accusing them for putting specially marketed “crime guns” on the market. Many of those suits have been tossed out of court, and none have resulted in any manufacturer or dealer paying any damages.

Another blow to the gun control lobby came Oct. 2 when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (search) released a review of 51 published studies about the effectiveness of state gun control laws. The CDC report found “insufficient evidence” that increased gun control lowers crime rates.

This has made it very difficult for groups like the Brady Campaign, which enjoyed tremendous media exposure during the Clinton administration -- culminating in the anti-gun Million Mom March (search) in May 1999, to gain traction.

“We had a domestic news blackout since the spring because of the war, but that’s not the only reason for this,” said Howard. “A lot of this stuff isn’t easily put into 30-second sound bites.”

Howard and others expect the discourse to heat up in the months preceding the expiration of the federal assault weapons ban (search) in September 2004. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., has already introduced a reauthorization bill with tougher restrictions. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has introduced her own version in the Senate.

“People understand that assault weapons do not belong on the street,” said McCarthy spokesman Scott Rowson. “No matter Democrat or Republican, there is deep and broad support against assault weapons in the public.”

Gun rights activists say if gun control were to become an issue in the 2004 election, it will be over the assault weapons ban reauthorization. Republican sources say debate is already emerging among the GOP rank-and-file in the House whether to fight it, and talk has centered around whether gun advocates will be inclined to go all out for President Bush if he signs a new ban.

“If it gets to the president’s desk, and he signs it, [that] would be a campaign issue like you wouldn’t believe,” said Pratt. “It would put gun owners in a real foul mood.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.