Gore Screws on the Silencer

Al goes mum on guns to avoid a Dukakis-like blunder

By Dave Kopel, director of the Independence Institute

9/29/00 12:10 p.m., National Review Online. More by Kopel on the gun issue in the 2000 election.

Remember the spring of 2000? Al Gore's strategists were proclaiming that gun control would be one of their core issues for the coming election. But these days, gun control gets only passing references from Gore, while the major focus is taxes and spending. Has Gore had another change of heart on guns? Perhaps a reverse of his shift from an NRA-"A"-rated Congressman (who almost always voted like Dick Cheney) to the most anti-gun veep in history?

Of course not. Should Al Gore win the election, his anti-gun agenda would exceed even Clinton's.

Rather than reflecting a change of heart, Gore's new, muted approach to guns reflects a sensible awareness of political reality. The reality is based not just on what Gore's internal polls on guns must be showing; a realistic approach to gun politics must also take account of the history of one of the greatest Democratic debacles in presidential history — the 1988 Dukakis campaign.

During the summer of 1988, most political reporters were praising Michael Dukakis's "flawless" capture of the Democratic nomination. With his double-digit lead over George Bush in the polls, Dukakis looked like a sure winner in November. A few astute reporters, though, saw trouble ahead.

Donald Lambro caught on early. On July 14, he reported that local politicians were beginning to worry that Dukakis's history on gun control might be "wounding his thus far error-free campaign." Lambro was right; Dukakis lost Pennsylvania — a must-win state for him — by less than 2%. Nationally syndicated columnists Jack Germond and Jules Witcover attributed Dukakis's problems in Pennsylvania to gun control and other crime issues. His 2% margin in Pennsylvania was smaller than the number of voters from NRA households. (And not all people who vote on the gun issue belong to the NRA.)

Michigan was another state that Dukakis had to win, but barely lost. At the time, Bush's campaign coordinator told the New York Times that he had seen more NRA "Defeat Dukakis" bumper stickers than Bush campaign stickers.

Said Ted Mondale, Midwest political director for Dukakis, on the eve of the election: "If [rural voters] are talking about the pledge of allegiance and gun control, we lose."

In Maryland, a voter initiative to overturn an anti-gun law came up short, but it still hurt Dukakis. In September, political analyst Horace Busby put Maryland in the "probable" column for Dukakis. In October, Busby reversed the call, correctly. Why? "[A] gun control vote there is forming a very conservative electorate in the state, to Dukakis's advantage."

The state's voter-registration coordinator observed a record surge in last-minute registrations. She said the gun vote had been "instrumental" in the surge. An official in Anne Arundel country attributed "the biggest last-minute surge we've ever had" to "mostly the gun bill." Officials in other counties told the same story. One eighty-year-old fisherman, who had never voted before, registered so he could vote against the gun law.

On election night, one of the networks called Maryland for Dukakis. But as the western, more-rural part of the state came in unexpectedly strong for Bush, the call was reversed. Bush won the state.

Misfiring Across America

It wasn't just the Northeast where gun control crippled Dukakis. The Chicago Tribune reported that "Political analysts say the issue has been devastating Dukakis in the South and West. It may be one of the main reasons that Dukakis is trailing in Texas."

In Texas, Jeannie Stanley, a professor of political science at the University of Texas, explained that gun control had swung "Reagan Democrats, independent voters and rural voters" to Bush. Southern pollster Claibourne Darden observed Dukakis running even in Texas, until Republicans fanned out in rural areas, and told Texans about Dukakis and guns. "In two or three weeks, Texas was gone."

Darden added that NRA members "vote the company line more than any other wide-based interest group."

"The gun issue is how the Republicans broke Texas," he said. Even Time magazine noted that Texas was highly receptive to Bush's stand on gun control, and added "in Texas, rifle racks rank with the flag as badges of honor."

The story was repeated throughout the South. At the Democratic convention, Tom Murphy, the Democratic Speaker of the House in Georgia, called Dukakis "a right smart fellow." Later, he withdrew his support, because of Dukakis's views on gun control and the death penalty. Said Mr. Murphy, "My people are right opposite on those issues."

A Georgia pollster explained that because of the gun issue, even yellow-dog Democrats had deserted Dukakis.

Gun control ravaged Dukakis in the West, as well. In California, Time noted the evaporation of Dukakis's lead in the polls. The magazine indicated that some of the social issues Bush was hammering on, including opposition to gun control, "have already been endorsed overwhelmingly by California voters in recent ballot initiatives." In 1982, California rejected a "handgun freeze" by a 2-1 margin.

The story was the same in the Rocky Mountain states. Suffering from economic depression, and resentful of Reagan-Bush environmental policies, these states all could have fallen into Dukakis's hands — but for the gun issue.

After the election, Idaho's Democratic chairman complained about a nomination process that ignored issues important in the West. New Mexico Democratic leaders stated that Dukakis's stand on guns made it nearly impossible for him to carry the state.

Meanwhile, NRA ads featuring Charlton Heston ran in 20 states. The NRA spent more on advertising around the presidential race than almost any group in the history of American politics.

In short, the gun issue may have cost Dukakis as many as 154 electoral votes — enough to have won the election.

After the election, defeated vice-presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen of Texas discussed the "incredible effect of gun control," and observed "we lost a lot of Democrats on peripheral issues like gun control and the pledge." Columnist Ernest Furgurson wrote that Bentsen believed that "to win the parts of the country where he grew up and where he campaigned most this fall, any politician will do better without the baggage of gun control."

The Dukakis-like Candidate

Is Gore as vulnerable as Dukakis? Probably not. While he was governor of Massachusetts, Dukakis compiled an unusually extremist record. He supported a statewide referendum to confiscate handguns. (The referendum lost in a landslide.) He repeatedly stated that the Constitution does not guarantee the right of an individual to own a gun, and even signed proclamation to that effect. And in a quote that the NRA put on the cover of its membership magazines, he told Roy Innis (head of the Congress On Racial Equality) in 1986, "I do not believe in people owning guns, only police and military. I am going to do everything I can to disarm this state."

On the other hand, Dukakis's promised presidential agenda on guns is not much different from Al Gore's. Dukakis told the New York Time she favored "stiff federal gun control," including national registration of concealable handguns, and licensing for handgun ownership. Gore formally claims to favor only licensing and registration for handgun purchasers, although the Clinton-Gore White House Working Group report envisions complete licensing and registration for all firearms.

Like Gore, Dukakis was an enthusiast for banning "assault weapons" — in other words, outlawing guns based on cosmetics that have nothing to do with firepower.

At a "Domestic Disarmament Day," Dukakis told handgun owners to turn their firearms over to the police. Today, the Clinton-Gore-Cuomo Department of Housing and Urban Development pays people to turn their guns over to the government. (Never mind that Congress never appropriated money for this Scheme.)

Although Dukakis was attacked for his ACLU membership, he never understood that in many areas he was seen as the anti-civil-liberties candidate. Most Americans are far more concerned with their right to own a gun for self-defense than they are about their right not to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

Outside of secure, suburban Brookline, many Americans believe they must be ready to protect themselves and their families — a desperate call to 911 will not suffice.

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