Crime rates have dropped all over America, but the national debate over gun control rages on unabated.
A long series of school shootings, most notably the deadly 1999 spree by two teenagers at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., has forced the issue back into the national consciousness.
And while neither Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore nor his Republican rival, George W. Bush, has emphasized the matter in recent campaign speeches, sharp policy differences exist between the two candidates, reflecting a long-standing philosophical dispute about guns: Gore and the Democrats emphasize prevention as the key to reducing gun crimes, while Bush and many Republicans say better law enforcement and tougher punishments will do the job.
Registration at Issue
Gore believes new handgun purchasers should register their guns and be licensed by photo ID, and has stood behind a series of Clinton administration proposals intended to make it harder to buy firearms, including one mandating more thorough background checks on buyers at gun shows.
“A shocking level of gun violence on our streets and in our schools has shown America the need to keep guns away from those who shouldn’t have them — in ways that respect the rights of hunters, sportsmen, and legitimate gun owners,” a draft of the Democratic Party platform reads.
By contrast, Bush opposes government-mandated registration of all guns owned by citizens without criminal records. And while the GOP nominee has supported some safety measures, the Texas governor signed into law a historic bill allowing citizens to carry concealed handguns. Two years later, the law was amended to allow guns in churches, hospitals, and amusement parks.
In early October, that bill drew criticism when a published report stated that more than 400 of the 215,000 Texans licensed to carry concealed weapons had prior criminal convictions, a figure Bush aides have disputed.
The Republican Party platform also strongly favors state and local enforcement of gun laws. “We can go forward, step by difficult step, to recreate respect for law — and law that is worthy of respect,” it reads.
But Gore and Bush agree on a few points. Both want the legal age for handgun ownership raised from 18 to 21, and both support a ban on assault weapons.
NRA in Play
Then there is the matter of both candidates’ relations with the National Rifle Association, the gun-owners group with the famously strong congressional lobbying record.
The NRA claims it will spend $15 million to $20 million during this year’s campaign, much of it on television during the weeks leading up to the election.
NRA president Charlton Heston appears in one NRA spot, asking: “Have you noticed how Al Gore has stopped talking about your gun rights? Is he afraid of gun owners’ votes? Because if Al Gore wins, gun owners better be afraid of him.”
But backing from the NRA can cut both ways. A majority of Americans — 67 percent — favor stricter gun laws, according to an ABCNEWS poll conducted in May.
In March, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre startled many by saying on ABCNEWS’ This Week that President Clinton “needs a certain level of violence in this country,” and was “willing to accept a certain level of killing to further his political agenda.”
Gore, who is not an NRA member, immediately demanded an apology, saying that “Mr. LaPierre’s comments reveal a kind of sickness at the very heart of the NRA.”
And even Bush was critical of LaPierre’s comments, adding, “I think we can have a civil discussion on emotional issues without name-calling.”
Bush has also tried to distance himself from remarks made by NRA vice president Kayne Robinson, who said in February that if Bush won the election, “we’ll have a president … where we work out of their office.”
In sum, Gore positions himself as a determined advocate of gun-control measures, while Bush, who will certainly draw more support from the NRA’s largely conservative constituency, tries to retain his appeal to gun owners while attempting not to offend those firmly opposed to the NRA.