(CNSNews.com) - A year before the 2004 presidential election, major Democratic candidates have moderated their rhetoric on firearms, trying not to alienate voters who own guns, while also carefully reassuring liberal voters of their continued support for gun control.
However, CNSNews.com's extensive review of the candidates' votes and statements on firearms policy shows that those with congressional experience have anything but a moderate voting record.
In the 2000 race, former Vice President Al Gore lost three battleground states - Arkansas, his home state of Tennessee and West Virginia, each by six or fewer percentage points - in part because he was unable to shed the anti-gun image he developed during the Democratic primary contest.
U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who has voted with gun-control proponents 100 percent of the time, views sportsmen as an important constituency. Just last month, with a shotgun in hand, Kerry had reporters follow him on a pheasant hunt in Iowa.
The current Democratic frontrunner, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, has no congressional track record to explain. Instead, he has stressed his endorsements from the National Rifle Association, while serving as Vermont's governor, in a concerted attempt to reach out to pro-gun Democrats.
Even Dean appears to be trying to have it both ways with his campaign rhetoric, according to groups that defend the Second Amendment and rate politicians on the issue.
The other leading contenders, including retired Gen. Wesley Clark, U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri and U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, fit into a similar pattern, according to pro-gun groups.
The Democrats' rhetoric mirrors a strategy outlined last month by the Democratic Leadership Council and Americans for Gun Safety. The groups touted a survey that showed a Democrat who endorsed the Second Amendment and supported reasonable gun control would defeat a pro-gun Republican.
Gun-rights advocates aren't buying the strategy of these "camouflage candidates," as they are sometimes called.
"Revisionist history might work with politicians, but it certainly doesn't work with NRA members," said Chris Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist. "Our membership is a very loyal and political savvy group of people who believe deeply in their freedoms and vote accordingly."
Cox told CNSNews.com the NRA wouldn't support candidates who lie about their stance on guns. He called it political double-talk.
Supporting the Second Amendment?
Even though gun control hasn't played as large a role thus far as it did when Gore and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley squared off in 2000, Dean and Kerry recently engaged in a spat over the issue.
Kerry's pheasant hunt last month was aimed at bolstering his image among sportsmen. He has earned an F rating from Gun Owners of America and the NRA for his voting record. But Kerry also used the setting to attack Dean's stance on firearms.
"Howard Dean and I have huge difference[s] on guns and what's appropriate," Kerry said at the presidential debate in Boston earlier this month. "I don't want to be the candidate of the NRA in this country. I don't think the Democratic Party should be the candidacy of the NRA."
Dean did receive an A rating from the NRA in 2000, but in the current presidential campaign, he has occasionally articulated gun-rights positions drastically at odds with those like the NRA and Gun Owners of America.
"I support the assault weapons ban," Dean said at the Boston debate. "I do not support the elimination of liability for gun owners. I support background checks. And I support background checks for people who buy guns at gun shows."
Switching positions or posing for photos is nothing new, said Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America. He told CNSNews.com that former President Bill Clinton used the tactic along with other Democrats looking for the support of gun owners.
"Democrats assume that if we see them with a gun in their hand, they must be pro-gun," Pratt said. "Just because they went sport shooting doesn't tell us that they're pro-gun. That shows you what they don't understand about the issue. Self-defense is just not in their worldview."
The other candidates - Clark, Gephardt and Lieberman - haven't made as much noise about the Second Amendment as Dean and Kerry, but they generally fall in line with positions advocated by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Gephardt, in a recent online chat sponsored by New Hampshire's Concord Monitor newspaper and washingtonpost.com, said he supports the "right to possession of firearms by lawful citizens."
In a survey conducted by the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, however, Gephardt bragged about his efforts to help pass the ban on so-called "assault weapons" in 1994 and the Brady Bill in 1993. Gephardt's gun-control advocacy earned him an F- rating from Gun Owners of America.
Lieberman voted for both of those bills as well. He has voted in line with the Brady Campaign 90 percent of the time in the last 12 years, the lowest percentage among the leading contenders in the race.
Despite his support for "law-abiding citizens to bear arms," Lieberman also wants handguns to be sold with safety locks, supports the ban on semiautomatic firearms and the idea of closing the "gun show loophole." He earned an F rating from Gun Owners of America.
With no voting record, the career military man, Clark, has a stance on firearms that is harder to judge. He is a collector of guns, but like the other candidates, supports the semiautomatic firearms ban and background checks.
"There is no contradiction between supporting gun rights and fighting for responsible gun laws," he told the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence in its 2004 election questionnaire.
Americans for Gun Safety spokeswoman Deborah Barron said the Democrats hold similar positions on guns. Despite the disagreement between Dean and Kerry, she said they both support extending the semiautomatic firearms ban and they favor background checks.
"We don't believe there is any contradiction between strongly supporting the Second Amendment right of individuals to bear arms as well as supporting laws that keep guns out of the hands of kids, criminals and terrorists," Barron said. "You're seeing Democratic candidates standing up and clarifying their support of the Second Amendment."
She also noted that President Bush has staked out similar positions to the candidates. Bush, however, favors legislation that would shield gun manufacturers from lawsuits, which the Democrats oppose.
Campaign strategies for the Democrats
Since receiving the NRA's top rating in 2000 as a gubernatorial candidate, Dean has taken a tougher stand against guns, while also promoting a states' rights position.
"If urban states want to have lots of gun control, let them have it, but just don't impose the same gun laws that you have in New York City or New Jersey or California on states like Vermont, which have a very low homicide rate," Dean said at the Sept. 9 debate in Detroit.
Dean's position hasn't won over gun-control activists like Sarah Brady, who has emerged as one of the candidate's biggest critics.
"Howard Dean has really stretched the boundaries of what we thought was a debate that was closed," Brady Campaign spokesman Rob Wilcox said. "He's talking about states' rights and that was an issue that was decided in the 1990s during the passage of the Brady Bill."
Wilcox said the Brady Campaign wouldn't support a candidate until after the Democrats pick their nominee. He said gun-control advocates are looking for someone who could balance "a hunter's right to hunt or an individual's right to protect their home with a firearm" with reasonable gun safety measures.
Despite Gore's losses in Arkansas, Tennessee and West Virginia, Wilcox said Gore advocated the right message in Pennsylvania and Michigan, two states that he won.
"If the message is articulated not in terms of a hunting issue or self-defense issue," Wilcox said, "but for background checks and reasonable restrictions on assault weapons, then I think it's overwhelmingly popular."
The NRA's Cox said the Second Amendment proved to be a crucial issue in the 2000 and 2002 elections, and he expects it will again be on the minds of Americans.
He warned Democrats that changing their stance on firearms could prove costly. He blamed Gore's losses on the Clinton administration's hostility toward the Second Amendment.
"You will continue to see our members engaged in this issue to the point where they are not going to believe the photo ops and they're not going to believe the political posturing by any candidate who is trying to run from their past," Cox said.
But Barron of Americans for Gun Safety said Democrats could capitalize on the issue as long as they articulated their views and respected the rights of gun owners.
"It's a strategic shift for the Democratic Party," she said. "Rather than conventional wisdom that guns cost Gore the election in 2000, what you're seeing is the Democratic candidates making a concerted effort to take back the Second Amendment and clarify their positions in the gun debate."
See Earlier Story:
Democrats Hope to Woo 'Bible-Quoting, Gun-Toting' Voters (Oct. 17, 2003)
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