Assault-Gun Ban Fades Away ; Bush and Democrats Play Down Support for a Decade-Old Law That Most Americans Like

Article excerpt

In the expanding universe of hot-button political issues, little has been heard of an old favorite - gun control - in this campaign until now. At midnight on Monday night, the 10-year-old ban on certain assault weapons will almost certainly expire as scheduled.

Activists on both sides of the issue have lobbied fiercely: Gun- rights advocates, with the National Rifle Association leading the charge, argue that the ban has done nothing to stop criminals from obtaining weapons and violates the Second Amendment. Gun-control supporters put forth statistics showing a dramatic decline in the criminal use of assault weapons since the ban's enactment in 1994.

President Bush has said that he supports the ban and would sign a bill extending it, but has not pressed Congress to act.

This flareup over the gun issue comes amid a highly charged election campaign, in which Democrats in particular are showing they've learned lessons of the past, analysts say. In 2000, Democratic nominee Al Gore favored licensing gun owners and registering all handguns - and went on to lose five battleground states in which he underperformed among gunowners: West Virginia, New Hampshire, Florida, Arkansas, and Tennessee. Mr. Gore almost lost Pennsylvania, too, another state with a high rate of gun ownership.

This year, Democratic nominee John Kerry - himself a gun owner and hunter - does not back the measures Gore did. And for the first time, the Democratic platform declares support for "Americans' Second Amendment right to own firearms."

"Until this election, the Democrats have handled the gun issue poorly and it has hurt them," says Jim Kessler, policy director of the group Americans for Gun Safety, who notes that 47 percent of voting households have a gun in the home. Now, he adds, "Democrats have reached out and are telling gun owners that they support the rights as well as the responsibilities of gun ownership. I don't think [the issue] will hurt them in this election."

The National Rifle Association, which gun critics say is withholding its endorsement of President Bush until after the assault-weapons ban has safely expired, is pounding hard on Senator Kerry anyway.

The organization calls Kerry "the most antigun presidential nominee in United States history," citing 59 votes involving firearms rights and hunting over 20 years, with only four going the NRA's way.

For now, though, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre sees Kerry having some success in what he calls "an attempt to fog over the issue." He says NRA polling data show that 42 percent of gunowners and hunters in key heartland states like Ohio, Missouri, and Arkansas believe gun restrictions will be lowered if Kerry is elected. "Our job at NRA between now and the election is to blow away the fog," says Mr. LaPierre.

On the Republican side, the 2004 platform says nothing about guns - but it doesn't need to, analysts say. …