At the Convention:Dems Agree with Clinton on Guns

Boston, Mass.–“Our crime policy was to put more police on the streets,” Bill Clinton told a cheering Democratic National Convention Monday evening, “and to take assault weapons off the streets.” The former President vigorously contrasted his position and that of John Kerry on assault weapons with those of Congress and President Bush [who] are also about to allow the ten-year-old ban on assault weapons to expire.

With those remarks, Clinton staked out a strong pro-gun control stance for his party and nominee Kerry this year–one that is sure to fuel pro-Bush activities by the National Rifle Association, the Gun Owners of America, and other pro-2nd Amendment groups. Are Democrats from across the country worried that this position on guns, then, may drive gun-owning voters away from Kerry and their party this fall? Hardly, it seems, or at least that was the reaction I got from numerous party leaders on the Fleet Center convention floor the night after Clinton’s address. Almost to a person, they believe that Kerry’s background as a hunter and veteran will be enough to thwart criticism of his support for the ban on assault weapons–easily the top issue of gun-owner advocacy groups this year.

“No, not at all,” was Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell’s reply when I asked him if the Clinton-Kerry position on guns would hurt the Democratic ticket in his state, a major venue for hunters and gun-owners. The former Philadelphia mayor and Democratic National Chairman told me that “Most hunters in Pennsylvania realize that assault weapons have no place in the home. They have never seen an assault weapon used to kill a bear or an elk. They’re used for criminal intent–to kill or maim.” Rendell (who doesn’t own guns, but told me he “fired the M-16 when I was in the Army”) said “you wouldn’t let Americans own rocket launchers and you shouldn’t let them own assault weapons.” He added that Kerry’s background in the service and as an avid hunter gave the Democratic ticket “the most appeal to hunters in a long time.”

A similar response came from the present Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe. “You’ve got a nominee who’s a hunter and a national chairman who’s a bird hunter,” McAuliffe told me, denying that the party’s pro-assault weapons ban would harm its standing with gun-owners. “But most hunters realize that there are people who should not have guns–people who have a history of insanity, violence, or spousal abuse.”

“Not every Democrat agrees with [the assault weapons ban],” Oklahoma Democratic Chairman Jay Parmlee conceded to me. But he quickly added that Oklahoma Democrats understand that “there is a difference between an assault weapons ban and the right to keep and bear arms, which we do everything we can to support.

The scenario of Kerry as hunter and combat veteran was sketched by numerous Democratic powers from Southern states, where gun-owners are a large and significant group. “People know that John Kerry owns guns and is a hunter,” former Texas Lt. Gov . Ben Barnes, a power in his state’s Democratic Party, told me. “George W. Bush made a very bad mistake on this one, because people realize that no one uses an Uzi to shoot birds.” However, Barnes pointed out that he felt that other issues would take precedence over the 2nd Amendment in the fall “even though the NRA would like to make it all about guns.”

But some Democrats from gun-owning states did suggest that their party’s strong identification with the gun control issue might be a problem this year. Former Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown, for example, told me his state is pro-gun, that “I haven’t seen any polls, but it’s going to be hard [for Kerry to win in Kentucky]. But if the voters are as smart as I think they are, they will elect someone else [other than Bush].”

Former Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus was a bit blunter. Catching up with Mabus as he was departing the convention for dinner, I asked if the party’s guns stance would hurt them in the fall. “One reason we lost Congress in ’94 was the issue of gun control,” he replied with hesitation, “and Bill Clinton said so publicly.”