The Clinton-Gore strategists have been trying to make the 2000 presidential and congressional elections a national referendum on their gun control agenda.
They, Handgun Control Inc. (HCI) and their allies in Congress, eager to win back control of the House if not the Senate, have been convinced that the gun issue is a winner for them this year.
They had exploited the Columbine High School murders and any other random acts of violence with a gun into order to keep the issue on the front burner.
But in recent weeks, sober analysts of the political tea leaves are suggesting that the latest polling holds no joy for the Democrats and HCI.
Have Gun, Will Vote
Nationally syndicated newspaper, magazine and TV commentator Fred Barnes, more conservative than most of his colleagues, was one of the first to discover things may be very different than imagined.
A column Barnes wrote for The New York Post, which has since been reprinted elsewhere, deserves almost verbatim quotation here because he lays out the facts and the findings so well.
William Schneider couldnt believe his eyes, Barnes began
The CNN commentator and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute felt there must be something wrong with a recent CNN poll. It showed Americans are evenly divided on whether George W. Bush, who doesnt talk much about guns, or Al Gore, who has made gun control a theme of his presidential campaign, handles the gun issue better. Schneider requested the question be asked again. It waswith the same result
The gun issue isnt supposed to be playing this way in 2000. Democrats, liberals, the press, most of the Washington political community, and even a good number of Republicans thought the politics of the issue had been transformed, post-Columbine. No longer would the intensity be on the side of the National Rifle Association and gunowners
Now, it would be with middle-class voters, suburbanites, soccer moms, and others who favor sweeping gun control, including registration of all handguns. They would force queasy Republicans to swallow gun control or else lose in this falls election, Barnes wrote
Quite the opposite has happened. The intensity has shiftedstrengthening the foes of gun control. NRA membership is soaring and may reach 4 million by years end. Most Republicans feel politically secure on the gun issue, and President Clinton has jettisoned the not-so-popular phrase gun control in favor of gun safety. Democrats made gun control the overriding issue last fall in the Virginia and New Jersey legislative races. The result was GOP capture of both houses of the Virginia legislature for the first time ever and easy Republican retention of the New Jersey statehouse.
In poll after poll, Barnes continued, public support for gun control has dipped. More important, public belief that more gun restrictions are the answer to gun violence, especially among youths, has faded.
A new twist to the debate has been crucial in undermining the drive for gun control. This is the argument, stridently voiced by NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, that existing gun laws should be enforced before any new ones are enacted. Finally, their side has an argument the public is receptive to, says Karlyn Bowman, who monitors polls for AEI.
Polls bear this out. A survey in April by ABC News/Washington Post asked whether passing stricter gun control laws or stricter enforcement of existing laws is the best way to curb gun violence. Enforcement was preferred by 53% to 33%.
In a survey for YRock, the Young Republican Website, GOP pollster Frank Luntz asked for reaction to this statement: Passing gun laws is what keeps politicians careers alive. Enforcing gun laws is what keeps the rest of us alive. Sixty percent agreed, 34% didnt.
By championing enforcement, Republicans have deftly adjusted to a change in the gun debate that Democrats were certain would help their side. In this regard, they first seized on Project Exile, a program in Richmond, VA, in which criminals who use guns are prosecuted in federal court, where trials are swifter and sentences harsher.
The Clinton Administration privately opposed expansion of Project Exile until last year, when a Senate hearing on it was scheduled. The Saturday before, the President reversed the policy. . . . Barnes wrote.
The public has dramatically lost faith in gun control as a solution to violence in America, notably to gun violence in schools. What would have the greatest impact in reducing school violence? In the Luntz poll, only 10% said gun control; 77% said teaching about right and wrong. Given other choices, 84% said parental involvement was the answer; 14% answered gun control.
One person who hasnt been surprised by voters attitudes about guns is Karl Rove, George W. Bushs chief strategist. Bush, of course, echoes the GOP line about first enforcing, and then tinkering with, existing gun laws. Rove characterizes the presidential race as between one guy who says the answer is more gun control and the other guy who says weve got laws on the books people are breaking. . . and while we need a few improvements, we need to send a message that when you use a gun, you go to jail. The second guy wins 60% to 20%, according to Rove.
He exaggerates, Barnes concluded, but he and Bush understand that the new politics of gun control are a lot like the old.
What Barnes has to say may not surprise many readers who are familiar with his political philosophy, after all Barnes is the editor of The Weekly Standard, a news weekly far from the liberal stripe of Time or Newsweek. But what struck me as particularly significant was that there were many other journalists who are suddenly plowing the same row.
One of these is Melissa Charbonneau of Newsstand on Christian Broadcast News, who also took note of the Luntz poll for the Young Republicans. The headline for her story read, Gun control not solution to ending youth violence, poll shows.
The poll found that most Americans, 42%, think the decline in quality time with parents is the number-one cause of youth violence. Thirty percent blamed violence in the media. Only 11% blamed access to guns, Charbonneau wrote
Bill Clinton was elected under the theme of its the economy, stupid, she continued. But its clear that the next president will have to recognize and tap into a new feeling among Americans, that American homes have been damaged and need to be repaired, Charbonneau concluded.
But the corroboration continues. Will Lester, writing for Associated Press, filed a story based on a poll conducted for AP a year after another taken immediately following Columbine.
Most Americans say they want tougher gun controls, including a big majority who favor a law requiring that guns be sold with trigger locks, an Associated Press poll finds. But people are split on the best way to reduce violence: better enforcement of current laws or passage of tougher ones
The poll found that 42% thought stricter enforcement was more likely to cut gun violence, while 33% said enacting tougher gun laws was a better approach. Neither option was best for one-fifth of those in the poll. . . .
The latest AP survey reflected a shift from a year ago, when more people said tougher laws were the answer.
Perhaps the following AP comment is the most significant media admission that polling results depend on the question asked.
When not asked to make a choice between the two options, six in 10 in the new poll said they supported stricter gun control laws, a number that has remained relatively constant in most polls before and after the Columbine shooting. . . . Lester noted.
Stay tuned. There are still six months to go before the elections.
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