Columbine Could Turn District's Political Tide
Richardson, Valerie, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
LITTLETON, Colo. - Two weeks before the Columbine shooting, Tom Mauser and his family were eating dinner when his 15year-old son, Daniel, asked him an unexpected question.
"He said, `Dad, did you know there are loopholes in the Brady Bill?' Just like that - out of the clear blue sky," recalled Mr. Mauser. "To me, it was a real sign."
Within a few weeks, Daniel was dead, and Mr. Mauser's life had changed forever. A transportation manager who had never been involved in politics, he's now one of the nation's most visible gun-control advocates as the political-affairs director of Sane Alternatives to the Firearms Epidemic, known as SAFE/Colorado.
His story is uniquely tragic, but Mr. Mauser says there are more like him in Colorado's 6th Congressional District: voters who once were content to support candidates backed by the National Rifle Association but have had a change of heart since the April 20 massacre that left 15 dead.
He should know. "I went door to door with fliers to try to put pressure on our state representative," Mr. Mauser recalled. "I'd knock on the door and say, `I'm Tom Mauser and I want to close the gun-show loophole,' and they'd say, `You're right, I can't believe we can't get this done.' "
Such evidence may be purely anecdotal, but it's music to the ears of Democratic strategists. Needing to wrest just five seats from the Republicans to regain control of the House, the Democrats have targeted the Colorado 6th District as one of their best bets for a takeover. Their optimism is based in part on the strength of the gun issue in a community upended by an act of unimaginable violence.
"It's an opportunity for us. Districts like these are changing," said John Del Cecato, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
It probably would take an event no less earth-shattering than Columbine for this district to elect a Democrat. Since the suburban Denver seat was created in 1982, only Republicans have filled it. Voter registration here heavily favors the GOP: 38 percent are Republican and 34 percent are independent, with Democrats holding just 27 percent of the electorate.
To capture the seat, the Democrats need unaffiliated voters to swing to the left. The candidate charged with luring those independents likely will be Ken Toltz, a businessman who probably has scared away any serious Democratic rivals by raising a hefty $250,000. He is willing to spend $1 million to defeat Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo, 54, a conservative freshman who won election in 1998 with the backing of the NRA.
Mr. Toltz, 43, began his campaign about five months before Columbine, but the deadly shooting has put the race into focus around public-safety issues. Mr. Toltz has blasted his opponent as a tool of the NRA, accusing him of trying to weaken existing gun-safety laws and protect firearms manufacturers from liability even as his constituents demand action to stop future Eric Harrises and Dylan Klebolds.
"I know people in the 6th District are very frustrated with their representation," said Mr. Toltz recently over coffee at Starbucks. "It really hit home when our community was so shaken, shaken to its core, and nothing has been done."
The irony here is that Colorado gun owners are even more frustrated with Mr. Tancredo. While Democrats attack him as a gun-slinging Neanderthal insensitive to his community's pain, Second Amendment groups are outraged over what they see as his political pandering to the gun-confiscation crowd.
His office has been flooded with angry mail from gun-rights advocates, while the state's largest and most conservative firearms organization, Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, held a protest outside a Tancredo fund-raiser in August.
At the heart of the unrest is Mr. Tancredo's vote in favor of the Juvenile Justice Bill, a gun-control package that came to the U.S. House floor June 18, just two months after Columbine. Mr. Tancredo was the only Colorado representative to support the bill, voting for provisions that would have mandated trigger locks, made it illegal for anyone younger than 21 to possess an automatic weapon, banned imported ammunition clips and enacted "Juvenile Brady," a provision that forbids any juvenile who commits a violent crime from owning a firearm.
Sources say the NRA gave Mr. Tancredo a pass on the bill, telling him he could vote for it without fear of political retribution because of his unique situation as the Columbine congressman. In the end, the proposal was defeated after Democrats abandoned it, saying it was too weak, although Republican strategists have accused Democrats of killing the bill to keep the gun-control issue alive.
In an interview, Mr. Tancredo said the tragedy made his vote inescapable. "The strongest feelings I had at the time were for my community," he said. "I didn't want to do anything to rub salt in their wounds."
But he admits the shooting also has moderated his views on gun rights. Mr. Tancredo, like Mr. Toltz, is supporting SAFE/Colorado's proposal for a November ballot measure to close the so-called gun-show loophole by requiring unlicensed firearms dealers to conduct background checks.
"I don't know how I would have voted if Columbine hadn't occurred because I've changed," said Mr. Tancredo. "I'm not the same. . . . I look at this issue and think, `There's a reasonable road to travel. I'm know I'm going to get shot at from both sides. But I think it's the best road.' "
Or it could be the road to ruin if he alienates his core constituency without winning over any centrist crossover voters.
"He would have been better off if he'd picked a spot and stood there," said Dave Kopel, research director of the Independence Institute, a libertarian think-tank once headed by Mr. Tancredo.
Mr. Tancredo's vote left Colorado gun owners disappointed, but he didn't earn their enmity until he began promoting the vote in the district. "He got gunnies incensed because not only did he vote that way, but he said, `Look, I stood up to the gun lobby,' " said Dudley Brown, president of the RMGO. "He thumbed his nose at us."
Mr. Kopel agreed. "It's less his particular votes than how he's come back to the district," he said. "He's been going on talk radio and TV, and he's all over the map on what he's saying. He no longer seems sure of himself. You can tell he's wobbling internally."
Particularly galling to conservatives has been the positive press Mr. Tancredo received in publications like Westword, a Denver weekly, and the New York Times. "The New York Times did this slobbering article on him where he's telling them, `Oh, boy, I used to be really pro-gun but now I've evolved,' and that's going to raise some concerns," said Mr. Kopel.
Mr. Tancredo fueled the fire by announcing last month that he would refuse to accept campaign donations from either side of the gun debate.
"Here's a news flash for you, Tom. You weren't going to get any money after you started voting against us," Mr. Brown responded.
Mr. Tancredo maintains he's done nothing to weaken gun rights. "I believe the Second Amendment can be protected and that you can also try to keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people. . . . Every vote I've cast so far supports that premise," he said.
Where the voters of the 6th District stand on gun rights remains the critical question. Colorado voters statewide are evenly split on gun control, according to recent polling by Talmey-Drake Research in Denver.
"My guess is that despite Columbine, the 6th is still a conservative Republican district and would tend to be less pro-gun control than the state as a whole," said pollster Paul Talmey. "I think if you're a liberal Democrat, what happened at Columbine really reinforces your liberal Democratic view, and if you're a conservative Republican, what happened at Columbine reinforces your conservative Republican view."
Random interviews with constituents suggest they may not have moved as far to the left as the Democrats had hoped. Tim Pauling, a 39-year-old Internet executive who came to see presidential hopeful George W. Bush speak in Englewood last month, said the Columbine shooting "highlighted the need for values," not more firearms restrictions.
"We probably had the opposite reaction of what people in Washington, D.C., thought," said Mr. Pauling. "It didn't make us start supporting gun control. That isn't going to solve the problem."
But Kelli Keron, a 30-year-old mother of two from Aurora who attended the same rally, said she has changed her views on the issue. "Columbine did affect me - I'm stronger on gun control," she said. "But I'm mainly stronger on family values - that's the core - and needing to get back to God."
Even those directly affected by Columbine aren't necessarily jumping on the gun-control bandwagon. At a forum last week with 26 Columbine teachers and students, most of those who weighed in on gun control said the shooting was the fault of the gunmen, not lax gun laws.
"I don't think it's guns at all - it's like they say, `Guns don't shoot people - people do,' and I totally believe that," said Columbine senior Sarah Bay, who lost three friends in the massacre.
Peter Forsberg, a senior who was trapped in the Spanish office during the mayhem, said the tragedy could have been prevented if Harris and Klebold were unable to obtain weapons. "The two killers wouldn't have been able to do what they did if it hadn't been for guns," he said.
Brian Rohrbough, whose son Daniel was killed in the massacre, said he would like to see more restrictions on gun purchases, such as requiring gun owners to obtain licenses like drivers do. But he doesn't think such laws would have prevented Columbine.
"Guns are a side issue. They are important, but they're not the main issue," said Mr. Rohrbough. "I mean, what if [the gunmen] had known how to make bombs?" ****CHART
COLORADO'S 6TH CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT
1990 Population: 548,788
6.2% Hispanic origin
55.2% married couple families
27.5% married couple families with children
68% college educated
Median household income: $37,333
Voted for president:
Dole = 49%
Clinton = 43%
Perot = 6%
Others = 2%
Bush = 38%
Clinton = 37%
Perot = 25%
Source: National Journal…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Columbine Could Turn District's Political Tide. Contributors: Richardson, Valerie - Author. Newspaper title: The Washington Times (Washington, DC). Publication date: April 10, 2000. Page number: 1. © 2009 The Washington Times LLC. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.