The NRA Wants You
"Gun control is for the right what prayer in school is for the left," says Grover Norquist, the conservative activist and president of Americans for Tax Reform, who is running for the NRA's board this year. "It is an issue where intensity trumps preference." Though most voters back gun control, says Norquist, their support doesn't move them to the polls. "But for that 4-5 percent who care about guns, they will vote on this," he says, harking back to 1994. "Like moths to a flame, the Democrats keep coming back to guns," he says. "It is my favorite issue in the world."
Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, a conservative pollster, says that Gore will have difficulty using the gun issue to mobilize Democratic voters, while the NRA can easily bring its core constituency to the polls in November. "It's a galvanizing issue for people who are gun owners," she says. By focusing attention on guns this year, Clinton and Gore might be able to rouse certain voters, especially suburban women, Fitzpatrick says, but she questions whether, in the end, those voters can be sufficiently motivated to get out and vote against Bush. "They might be able to wake up a sleeping dog here and there, but it's up to Gore to make that dog growl and bite," she says. "Wake up and drool is not enough."
But Celinda Lake, the Democratic pollster, thinks the Republicans will get bitten this year. Thanks to the outrage over Columbine, the intensity among anti-gun voters is as powerful as that on the other side. "What our data show is that single-issue gun-control voters for the first time equal pro-gun voters," she says. "There's been a fundamental paradigm shift among women." In a poll for the Pennsylvania legislature conducted by Lake last June, she says, she found that "single-issue pro-gun-control voters outnumber single-issue anti-gun-control voters two to one."
Of course, Republicans and the NRA cite polls showing the opposite to be true. Chris Paulitz, spokesman for the Republican National Committee, notes data showing that voters in an ABC News poll preferred Bush to Gore on guns 47-41 percent. Asked whether the GOP is concerned about being too closely tied to the NRA, Paulitz said: "Why would we back off? We've always gotten money from the NRA. The NRA is an easy target for the Democrats, and they try to equate them with the devil."
However, data like Lake's--and evidence of widespread public anxiety about guns--have clearly emboldened Clinton and Gore to seek to portray Bush and the Republican Party as tools of the NRA. When LaPierre served as co-chairman of a $15 million fundraiser for the GOP in Washington in late April, the Gore campaign lambasted the Texan for associating himself with the gun lobby. "So much for George W. Bush's moderate makeover," said Gore's spokesman. "He has rushed from the warm embrace of Bob Jones and straight into the arms of the NRA." Clinton crisscrossed the country in March and April hammering away at the NRA, and Gore has shown every intention of making guns a central theme of his attack against the Texas Governor.
In the Midwest there is mounting evidence that the NRA might be playing a losing hand. Last May their top priority in the states--passing laws that allow citizens to carry concealed weapons--ran aground in two key battleground states. In Missouri, despite a multimillion-dollar NRA campaign, voters rejected the "concealed carry" referendum 52 to 48, while in Michigan a coalition of gun-control groups, public health organizations and law enforcement persuaded Governor John Engler, a Republican, that a concealed-carry law passed by the state legislature was better left unsigned. Both were huge defeats for the NRA. In other Midwest states moderate Republican governors have resisted the NRA's pet issues. In Illinois, Governor George Ryan was elected to office in 1998 over an NRA-backed Democrat in a race in which gun control played the pivotal role. And, even in conservative Ohio, Governor Bob Taft is backing a safe-storage requirement for guns in the home, a bill that has been dubbed "Taft's Burglar Protection Bill" by an angry NRA.
In House races, too, there are signs that the NRA may be less than successful this year. Ever since Columbine, many Republicans from suburban and swing districts in California, the Midwest and the Northeast have been caught between their party's allegiance to the NRA and growing anti-gun sentiment in their districts. Two Republican House members quite visibly caught in the vise are James Rogan, an embattled conservative from Southern California who, after voting with the NRA, has flip-flopped to become a supporter of gun control, and Tom Tancredo, an ultraconservative lawmaker whose district includes Littleton, Colorado. Even pro-gun Democrats may be worried: In California veteran Congressman and NRA member Matthew Martinez lost his primary--in which he had heavy backing from the NRA--to State Senator Hilda Solis, who was backed by Handgun Control and spotlighted guns as an issue.
In the Midwest, a key district could be Ohio's 12th, an open seat created by the retirement of Republican Congressman John Kasich. Mary Ellen O'Shaughnessy, a Democrat contesting that seat, plans to make gun control an issue in her race against Pat Tiberi, a state legislator who supports the NRA's concealed-carry bill. Signaling that pro-gun voters don't automatically have the advantage anymore in a district that has historically been safe for the NRA, Tiberi says, "I don't believe that the issue will end up helping one candidate or the other."