For most Dems., gun control a federal issue

by Steven Orbuch | 11/10/03 6:00am

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of articles that will examine the presidential candidates' stances on various hot-button issues.

The debate over gun control looks to be a pivotal issue in the upcoming Democratic primaries, held in many notoriously gun-friendly states including New Hampshire and Iowa.

With the exception of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, all of the major Democratic presidential candidates favor stringent federal regulations on gun possession.

Dean's platform, on the other hand, endorses state regulation of gun ownership, although he has said that he supports the Clinton administration gun laws, including the 1994 ban on assault weapons and the Brady Bill, which mandates a waiting period and background checks for the purchase of handguns.

Slightly over a week ago, fellow presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry went on the offensive, accusing Dean of playing both sides.

"You cannot favor federal gun control and allow the states to do it their own way," Kerry told the New York Times on Oct. 31. "That's a complete contradiction."

Brian Martin '06, Gen. Wesley Clark's campus representative, said that this most recent quibble over gun control is the product of a handful of underlying issues.

Martin said that Dean should be criticized for his position on gun control because it actually contradicts itself, as Kerry argued. "Dean has a history of this kind of behavior," Martin said. "In the past, he's stated opposite things on free trade, now he's saying opposite things on guns."

Many have accused Dean of dishonestly forming a gun control policy which would not offend the majority of the American population -- who favor federal gun control -- while still appealing to New Hampshire and Iowa voters, who prefer state regulation.

Martin said, however, said that Dean's position is not the product of deceitful policymaking.

"I don't think that Dean's platform is a matter of conscious dishonesty," Martin said. "He just wants to be liked."

Unlike Martin, Greg Klein '04 of Generation Dean said that Dean's agenda is actually coherent because the need for gun control varies between states.

According to Klein, the Dean platform would mean that states such as California and New York would be able to legislate guns beyond current federal guidelines, whereas states such as Vermont, with low homicide rates, would be able to scale back on restrictions due to a lack of need for staunch regulations.

Klein did, however, add that "when it comes down to actual legislation, Dean and Kerry would probably make very similar decisions when it comes to gun control and gun law."

Martin said that Kerry, who has decided to grill Dean on the issue, may be guilty of deceptive behavior.

"Kerry is trying to make mountains out of molehills with Dean on all issues," Martin said. "Kerry is after him because he is losing New Hampshire to Dean and he needs if for there to be any hope of receiving the Democratic nomination." Klein expressed a similar sentiment with regard to Kerry's recent attacks on Dean.

"Kerry is running as an underdog now," Klein said. "He is trying to poke holes in the Dean campaign. I'm not trying to say that it's a bad thing that he's doing this -- that's what you've got to do if you're trailing in the polls."

Both Martin and Klein said that the main problem confronting the Democratic candidates besides Dean is that there is little room for them to make their gun control platforms unique.

In fact, Kerry, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt have nearly identical voting records on issues of gun control.

The candidates all voted in favor of stringent federal restrictions on gun ownership and usage in the past, and all support an assault weapons ban.

Rev. Al Sharpton, Carol Moseley-Braun and Clark have also expressed their preference for strict federal regulation of guns.

Since a platform of federal gun regulation is often equated as anti-gun, most Democratic candidates have made a concerted effort to specifically appeal to New Hampshire and Iowa voters by presenting themselves as gun lovers nonetheless.

For example, Kerry portrays himself as an avid hunter in interviews. Clark, too, has emphasized that he has hunted since boyhood and grew up in a family with more than a dozen rifles.

"I've got 20-some odd guns in the house. I like to hunt. I have grown up with guns all my life, but people who like assault weapons should join the United States Army," Clark said in an interview on CNN Crossfire in June.

At present, all candidates for the Democratic party nomination are pushing the message that federal gun control does not threaten recreational hunters or sensible gun owners.

Moseley-Braun clearly expressed this sentiment in her responses to a survey conducted by the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

"I have always maintained that responsible gun owners have nothing to fear from reasonable gun control," Moseley-Braun said.