Clinton Gun-Control Pressure Could Backfire for Elections

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President Clinton's latest gun-control offensive may draw some swing voters into the Democratic column this fall, but it could boost voter turnout among committed gun owners for Republicans, too, pollsters said yesterday.

"It can backfire on him in a low-turnout election. But in a high-turnout election, where he's able to galvanize voters on the issue, he may score some points," Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said of Mr. Clinton.

The president began his latest initiative on the gun-control issue last week, calling for action on a long-stalled bill in Congress. His efforts culminated yesterday when his administration announced a voluntary agreement with firearm manufacturer Smith & Wesson to put safety locks on its guns in order to make them child-resistent.

But political pollsters said yesterday that whatever happens to the pending gun-control bill, Mr. Clinton's real motive is to intensify the gun-control issue to help Al Gore and the Democrats with swing independent voters in November.

"This is a campaign where each side is trying to drum up intensity. In the absence of any other major issues right now, each side is using emotion in an effort to draw out the potentially intense voters who will vote just on this issue," Mr. Newhouse said.

"It's an issue that has political legs," said Democratic pollster Alan Secrest.

George W. Bush, the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee, already has modified his position on guns since Mr. Clinton began speaking out on the issue. This week Mr. Bush said he would sign a law requiring that trigger locks be sold with all handguns, though he doubted it could cut down on gun violence.

Whether Mr. Clinton succeeds in moving a gun-control bill through Congress, many pollsters said that this is not necessarily the primary political goal. Rather, Mr. Clinton's chief aim is to "create a gun-control majority for Gore and the Democrats," Mr. Newhouse said.

"The White House's dream is that Republicans in Congress will keep fighting trigger locks so that they can use this as a definitional issue in the fall," said Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio. "They'd love for the whole bill to fall by the wayside.

"I've polled on this and you get upward of 70 percent who support trigger locks on handguns," Mr. Fabrizio said.

But pollsters said the positions that a majority of Americans have on gun control are not as simple as Mr. Clinton paints it and that many agree with the National Rifle Association's position that not enough is being done to enforce the gun laws already on the books.

"If you look at the polls, on the one hand they say that the American people believe that there are enough laws and we need to enforce them," Mr. Newhouse said.

"On the other hand, the American people support trigger locks and tighter gun-show checks on purchasers," he said. …