W A S H I N G T O N, Feb. 28, 2002 -- Never take your eyes off guns.
Though the issue largely faded from view after the 2000 elections, advocates and opponents of gun-control measures are gearing up for record midterm election spending and preparing for a series of legislative battles later this year.
The degree to which the national parties involve themselves in the debate is not simply a matter of ideology.
The most recent legislative tussle centers on what advocates of gun control call the "gun show loophole." Under federal law, licensed firearms dealers must run background checks on every gun buyer. But at gun shows, which number 4,000 a year, private collectors can swap, trade and sell without undertaking such checks. The National Rifle Association says that social science is on its side: Few crimes can be linked to guns purchased at gun shows.
Gun-control advocates say that a few is too many — that criminals and terrorists can exploit the slack enforcement and oversight of gun shows and purchase weapons. They hope the Sept. 11 attacks give new resonance to their longtime campaign to close the so-called gun show loophole.
A bill to close the loophole, sponsored by Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, may soon come up for a vote.
Reed's measure would apply the language of the Brady Law, which requires mandatory background checks for all gun purchases, to gun shows. Law enforcement agencies would have three business days to scour their files.
A competing bill, co-sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and others, hasn't yet been scheduled for a floor debate, aides to those senators said.
That bill is being peddled as a moderate compromise—it would require background checks, but would allow states to request a waiver that might enforcement options.
McCain is said by advocates of his legislation to be shopping for the right moment to attach the bill to a much bigger piece of legislation so that its chances for passage are improved — perhaps on a homeland security measure that is still being drafted by several committees.
Reed's staff said their Senator has been promised by Majority Leader Thomas Daschle, D-Sd., that his bill would be considered first.
Gun regulations are like a hot waffle, particularly because incumbent Democrats from states with libertarian views on gun legislation don't want the issue front and center.
"With an election year coming up, there are those comments," said Caleb Shreve, a spokesman for Americans for Gun Safety, which has crafted advertisements in favor of the measure. "But McCain is really pushing this, and the bipartisan support gives them a lot more confidence."
AGS is funded by Andrew J. McKelvey, a dot-com billionaire, and claims it does not have an explicit political or party preference. McKelvey is a former member of the board of directors for Handgun Control Inc.
Still, the gun issue is not a clear winner for Democrats nationwide. The NRA likes to point out that pro-gun voters made the margin of difference in traditionally Democratic states like West Virginia, where former Vice President Al Gore lost last year to then-Gov. George W. Bush of Texas. And Virginia's Democratic candidate for governor, Mark Warner, neutrilized the gun issue by appealing to gun owners during his successful 2001 campaign.
But the gun issue was part of the campaign discourse in two Senate races in which NRA's candidate of choice was defeated: Missouri and Michigan.
The NRA has nearly 3 million members, and they contribute a total of more than $100 million each year to the organization. It has unofficial "do not touch" agreements with Democrats in Western states, including Montana, where Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, who has a mixed record on gun rights, faces a tough re-election challenge.
Most polls show a measured public attitude toward guns and legislative proposals.
In 2001, when crime rates were at their 30-year ebb across the nation, an ABCNEWS poll found that 64 percent of those surveyed supported additional gun-control laws. But nearly half — including 49 percent of those who support them — were dubious about their efficacy. More recent polls sponsored by gun-law proponents appear to show that most Americans favor closing the so-called gun show loophole.
In the debate, anti-regulation forces will once again be led by the NRA and its seven Washington lobbyists, while the Brady Campaign, the Violence Policy Center and AGS will lead advocates of gun control.
The NRA will devote time to the gun show measure and has planned strategy with friendly members. Its larger focus this year is on politics.
Jim Jay Baker, the NRA's chief lobbyist, said he hopes to add more pro-gun senators to its ranks.
"Our emphasis is going to be on four of five or six statewide races, where we'll have a good guy vs. bad guy setup," Baker said.
The NRA, which spent more than $4 million in 1998's midterm cycle, will spend 20 percent to 25 percent more this year, Baker said.
Among the targeted races so far: Senate contests in Missouri, Georgia and Minnesota, where, according to Baker, the NRA can rouse its membership by running issue advertisements and flooding mail-boxes with information about the candidates' positions.
The narrative Baker would like to run through gun owners' minds: "George W. Bush is here. He's much more supportive to us than the previous administration. We have a majority in the House of Representatives. But we have a problem in the Senate."
Not GOP vs. Dem Issue
Though most of the targeted candidates will be Democrats, Baker is quick to say that the NRA is smart enough to recognize when its presence would hinder both candidates.
In South Dakota, Democratic incumbent Tim Johnson is said by proponents and opponents of the bill to be concerned about an "aye" vote's effect on his constituents, many of whom are gun owners or at least don't support further gun regulations. Johnson is running for re-election against GOP Rep. John Thune.
Johnson favors "existing law," said Steve Hildebrand, his campaign communications director, referring to the position that favors strongly enforcing current laws suffice. True to form, in 1999, Johnson voted against a measure that have relaxed the background checks required of licensed dealers at gun shows.
Hildebrand said he hadn't talked to Johnson about the upcoming gun show bill, which would require background checks for sales by unlicensed, private collectors.
He said that Johnson planned to attend a gun show when he was in the state a few weeks ago, only to learn that the show had actually been scheduled for a day when Johnson couldn't attend.
As for whether Johnson had broached the issue with the Senate leadership, Hildebrand said he didn't know, but said, "That's not Tim's style."
Amy Stillwell, the Brady Campaign's communications director, said of the 2002 vote, "We are busy putting together a grass-roots army." The organization claims about 500,000 members.
As in many debates between competing interest groups, winning the language battle is an ingredient for success.
Gun-control groups have successfully woven the phrase "gun show loophole" into the media's lexicon. "Loophole" is not a neutral word, as it connotes a slack space through which something nefarious could be threaded.
But the NRA has won a rhetorical battle of its own. According to Baker, they've succeeded in setting up a simple dichotomy. "We trust you," he said, and they — the advocates of gun control — don't. So much so that the Brady Campaign — formerly Handgun Control Inc. — operates from a defensive crouch. In their introductory literature and in their lobbying efforts, they repeatedly stress that their goal isn't to ban guns entirely — just to sensibly regulate their use.
Legislatively, though, gun-control advocates have pushed through 1994's Brady Bill, which mandated a federal background check for all gun owners. Since firearm possession has traditionally been unregulated, proponents of regulation have more to gain, substantively, than the NRA and its allies, who must fight to protect the legal space they revere. That's why favoring incremental measures like shoring up the "gun show loophole" gain traction.
Both sides list lawsuits as their next priority. The NRA wants to protect gun or ammunition manufacturers from lawsuits filed by municipalities seeking compensation for gun deaths. Most advocates of handgun control want to expand those suits.