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A way to win back Southern Democrats on the gun issue

By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 5, 2002

Many Democrats will go to their graves believing Al Gore was robbed of the presidency in the 2000 Florida vote. But that's not the way Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., sees it. The former Georgia governor believes Gore narrowly lost the election to George W. Bush because he lost touch with the voters in the South, especially on gun control. Gore was only the third Democratic presidential candidate since the Civil War to lose every state of the old Confederacy. If Gore had won his home state of Tennessee he would be president today.

The gun-control issue is killing Democrats in the South, Miller says, because too many of them treat people who own guns for hunting and protection like sociopaths. According to Miller, responsible gun owners resent being labeled "gun nuts" and being made to feel guilty after every school shooting, as if their collective finger was on the trigger. Some Democrats, he says, just don't understand that gun ownership is about Southern "values, personal freedom and responsibility."

In an op-ed piece in the New York Times last summer, the straight shooter from Georgia wrote: "Southern voters may say they are for gun control, and they may well be for gun control, but they simply don't trust anybody who spends too much time talking about it. If Southern voters ever start to think you don't understand them -- or even worse, much worse, if they think you look down upon them -- they will never vote for you."

Miller carried that message to the recent convention of the National Rifle Association and received a standing ovation. He was the first Democrat in more than a decade to give the keynote address at the NRA's annual meeting. Miller's words were music to the ears of NRA leaders, who openly boasted of keeping Gore out of the White House, just as they had vowed to do because of the Clinton administration's support of gun-control legislation.

Some of Miller's Senate colleagues were not surprised that he wowed the NRA. After all, he has spent his first two years in Washington lecturing Democrats on their liberal ways and often siding with Republicans on such issues as tax cuts and judicial nominations. But it's not just Miller who contends that Democrats will be at a political disadvantage among white Southern males as long they continue to demonize gun owners.

The Democratic Leadership Council, the philosophical home of moderate Democrats, in recent years has been urging the national party to shift the debate from gun control to gun safety and responsibility. For too long the debate has been polarized. You are either pro-gun or anti-gun.

On one side, the NRA argues that the constitutional right to own and keep arms is absolute. It opposes even the most sensible gun-control measures as just another step toward gun confiscation. On the other side are the gun-control groups and their congressional allies who view gun ownership as unsafe and irresponsible. They contend that the Second Amendment's guarantee of the right to bear arms applies to state militias, not to individuals.

The DLC has been urging Democrats to avoid both extremes. On the gun issue, it suggests, the middle ground is the high ground. In an article in Blueprint, the DLC's quarterly magazine, Jonathan Cowan and Jim Kessler of Americans for Gun Safety wrote last year that the party that offers a "sensible approach to guns" will have the political advantage, especially among independent and surburban voters.

According to a poll conducted for Americans for Gun Safety, they said, most voters reject the extremes on the gun issue. They wrote: "Only 16 percent believe that gun ownership is an absolute right and only 9 percent believe it is an absolute wrong. Seventy percent of voters believe there is a right to own a gun and that it includes room for restrictions that keep guns out of the hands of criminals and children. Even 65 percent of gun owners and 61 percent of Americans who view the NRA favorably agree that gun rights and reasonable gun restrictions can coexist."

Cowan and Kessler believe the poll's findings show there is a "third way" to deal with this issue if gun-control proponents and gun-safety advocates would stop fighting long enough to look for common ground. They urged both sides to take these steps: (1) Adopt a new message: respect for gun rights coupled with an insistence on gun responsibility; (2) Back up their rhetoric by "toughening enforcement of current gun laws and passing new laws that crack down on gun crime"; (3) Distance themselves from "traditional strategies that demonize gun owners, call for gun control instead of gun safety, urge a ban on guns, and imply that legal gun ownership is the root cause of gun crime."

This third-way strategy probably won't satisfy either extreme in the gun debate, but it would appeal to swing voters, give a Democratic presidential candidate a sporting chance among Southern males and leave room for some common-sense gun laws.

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