Gun Control: Still Radioactive
Remember the Wedgwood Baptist Church massacre in Fort Worth, Texas, on Sept. 15, 1999?
Probably not. Only seven people were killed at a teen service when Larry Gene Ashbrook sprayed the sanctuary with fire from two semi-automatic handguns before killing himself. He was angry at religion or something.
It was nothing compared to what had happened less than five months earlier at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.
Columbine you remember. Everybody remembers Columbine. Twelve students and one teacher were killed by two teenagers who felt they weren't popular enough. Or something.
Columbine caused many schools to adopt a "zero tolerance" policy toward weapons and threats of violence.
Which obviously didn't do much to prevent the massacre at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., Monday, in which at least 33 people were killed.
But Wedgwood Baptist Church retains its small place in the history of gun violence in America — because it came during a presidential campaign and forced the candidates to talk about it.
George W. Bush said: "I don't know of a law — a governmental law — that will put love in people's hearts. There seems to be a wave of evil passing through America now ... but our hopes and our prayers have got to be that there is more love in society."
Which was the classic Republican position: Guns don't kill people; people without love in their hearts kill people.
Al Gore took the classic Democratic position: Government has to do something.
Gore went on "Larry King Live" and said that "assault weapons" like the 9 mm Ruger and the .380 AMT semiautomatic handguns that Ashbrook had used "should be banned."
"I think a lot of people have heard the tricky arguments and all of the rationalizations, and I think they just have had enough of it," Gore said. "We have a flood of handguns that are too deadly. They're in the wrong hands."
And Gore's operatives made sure that reporters had copies of the 1997 law that Bush had signed barring prosecution of people who brought guns to churches or synagogues unless the houses of worship had posted notices alerting people that guns were not wanted.
"Has it come to this?" Gore asked. "Are we not even safe in church anymore?"
The Bush campaign lashed back angrily. "The American people are tired of politicians trying to politicize every tragedy," Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said. "They are looking for leaders to help heal the country, not those who use tragedies to score political points."
Guns would play a big part in the outcome of the race. In his two terms as president, Bill Clinton had succeeded in making gun control a mainstream political issue and was able to convince hunters that banning assault rifles and cop-killer bullets would in no way harm their sport.
Gore was not able to pull this off. Gore was not able to counter National Rifle Association attacks and was not able to reach across the cultural divide to hunters, many of whom were among the lower-income white males that Gore, in general, did poorly with.
Had Gore won his home state of Tennessee, Clinton's home state of Arkansas or the Democratic state of West Virginia, he would not have needed to win Florida in order to gain the presidency. But he lost them all. And guns had a lot to do with it.
According to exit polls, some 48 percent of voters owned guns in 2000, up from 37 percent in 1996. (This did not necessarily mean more people owned guns, but rather that more gun owners went to the polls.) Among those owning guns, 61 percent voted for Bush.
More significant, however, was what gun ownership did to other voting patterns: Overall, union households gave Gore 59 percent of their votes. But if there was a gun in that union household, the vote was split 50-50 between Bush and Gore.
From then on, Democrats have grown very reluctant to talk about gun control.
After Gore's defeat, Terry McAuliffe, then chairman of the Democratic Party, was vocal in advising Democrats to abandon gun control as an issue in future elections.
"I believe we ought to move it out, let the individual communities decide their gun laws and how guns ought to be treated," he said. "It has had a devastating impact on elections because the NRA has targeted and spent millions of dollars distorting individual members' views and Al Gore's views."
Sen. Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, said after Gore's loss: "It has been a disaster that the Democratic Party has fallen to the Rosie O'Donnell reputation for getting rid of all the guns. That is a mindless approach, frankly. If you're from a rural state like I am, you know there is nothing wrong with gun ownership, hunting or self-defense."
The political reasoning was simple: If Democrats were going to win the presidency, they needed to win the South and rural voters. And you didn't get the South and rural voters by being against guns.
"We need people who believe in the basic lifestyle of rural areas," Feingold said. "A lot of urban Democrats think gun ownership is weird. It isn't weird. We need to give the American gun owner an agenda that does not include confiscation. Unlike abortion, the gun issue can be easily resolved by a meeting of minds somewhere in middle."
John McCain said after Columbine: "We have to reduce the availability of guns to children. We have to more clearly define what a gun show is and what an assault weapon is. But if you banned every gun, you would still have Websites that teach kids how to make pipe bombs and Websites that teach hatred. The Democrats blame it all on gun control, and the Republicans blame it all on Hollywood. In reality, it's multi-faceted."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who didn't join the NRA until August, 2006, when he decided to run for president, now finds it politically advantageous to brag about being a hunter, even though he has rarely hunted.
Presidential candidates, who usually flood the e-mail boxes of reporters with statements on everything under the sun, were very slow to send any e-mails or otherwise speak out on the shooting at Virginia Tech Monday.
An exception was John Edwards, the former Democratic senator from North Carolina, who said at a rally in Memphis: "Our prayers go out to these young people — and it appears to be mostly students — and their families. God bless them. And it's a terrible tragedy in America."
In a later written statement, Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, said they were "simply heartbroken."
Romney issued a brief statement reading: "The entire nation grieves for the victims of this terrible tragedy that took place today on the campus of Virginia Tech. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families and the entire Virginia Tech community. Our full support is behind the law enforcement officials who are involved with stabilizing the situation and conducting an investigation."
President Bush said in a televised statement: "Our nation is shocked and saddened by the news of the shootings at Virginia Tech today. ... Schools should be places of safety and sanctuary and learning. When that sanctuary is violated, the impact is felt in every American classroom and every American community."
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., came to the House floor to lead a moment of silence and said she also spoke for House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. "The continued prayers of this Congress are with the students, their families, the faculty and the staff of Virginia Tech," Pelosi said. "Leader Boehner joins me in extending our condolences to all concerned."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said: "The thoughts and prayers of all Americans are with the Virginia Tech family today. As we learn more about this horrific tragedy — the deadliest shooting in our nation's history — it breaks our hearts and shakes us to our very cores. We pray for those who were lost and for the speedy recovery of the wounded. And we pray that America can find the strength to overcome our grief and outrage as we face this tragedy together."
Nobody mentioned gun control.
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