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Thursday, March 04, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Collin Levey / Times editorial columnist
Gun-shy Democrats still can't shoot straight


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No duel between a cowboy and a soldier would be complete without a gun battle and, thanks to Congress, it looks like we'll get one. Yeehaw.

On Tuesday, the Senate voted on a bill to limit the liability of gun manufacturers for the lawless use of their products. With John Kerry in attendance, the measure was defeated in a landslide, 90-8. That's a result that usually would have Democrats boogying in the aisles. But leading Democrats like Chuck Schumer and Dianne Feinstein were sulky: They know the result sets up the Democrats for a doozy of an election season.

The lopsided defeat came only after the bill's original sponsors abandoned it, saying it had been spoiled beyond redemption by a Democratic amendment extending Bill Clinton's 1994 ban on "assault weapons" (i.e., ordinary guns with cosmetic features that make them look military).

Gun control has proved a major ball and chain for Democrats' electoral fortunes over the past few campaigns. This fight looks no different. The assault-weapons ban has shown no measurable impact on gun violence. National Rifle Association Vice President Wayne La Pierre smiled after the vote, "I can just see (Democratic National Committee Chairman) Terry McAuliffe cringing in his office all day long."

Al Gore gets credit for most of the gun shyness on the part of Democrats. His gung-ho position on establishing a national registry blew a hole in his Southern support. Even campaign manager Donna Brazile called it "a big factor" in his defeat. You'd think Democrats would have learned a long time ago. Local hero Tom Foley, former speaker of the U.S. House, lost his 1994 re-election bid partially because of an unpopular stance on gun control. He wasn't the only one.

This year's field of Democratic contenders were quick studies. When they weren't keeping mum on the topic, they were usually out pheasant hunting or boasting of the cache of handguns they kept in their own basement. Howard Dean practically wore an NRA T-shirt and John Kerry has endorsed every law-abiding American's "right to bear arms." That's a far cry from the days when Democrats preferred to deny the Constitution guaranteed such a thing.

Kerry's position on gun control is a lot like most of his positions — he is and he isn't. He has called gun owners special interests in an effort to taint the NRA with the same kind of malodorous quality Democrats have cheerily ascribed to Halliburton. They constantly equate the group with the gun industry, but the gun industry has its own trade association, which often cringes at NRA rhetoric and positions.

The NRA, as much as Democrats hate to admit it, is a consumer-voter organization. Its power is not wielded by making campaign donations but by influencing millions at the ballot box.

Kerry wrapped his opposition to assault weapons in the concerns of police officers. And even Feinstein struggled to make a distinction between the NRA and its members. "We find ourselves today on the cusp of yet another NRA victory," Feinstein said. "And let me be clear — not a victory for NRA members, most of whom are law-abiding gun owners who might someday benefit from the ability to sue a manufacturer that sold them a defective or dangerous gun." Huh?

In fact, the liability shield that was defeated in Congress this week had nothing to do with defective guns or illegal behavior by gun companies. It was designed solely to stop a flood of lawsuits blaming gun makers when armed criminals commit crimes. Feinstein's mischaracterization notwithstanding, Democrats were prepared to vote for the bill in large numbers. Those from rural districts and many Southern and Western states recognize such lawsuits for what they are — a backdoor way of trying to put a legal industry out of business.

Republicans were chortling yesterday because the fault line in the Democratic Party is much deeper than any similar cleavage between liberal and conservative Republicans. Urban mayors love the idea of shoring up their budgets with gun-lawsuit windfalls while also passing the buck to business for their cities' crime problems. The trial lawyers, another important Democratic donor group, love the lawsuits for obvious reasons.

Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley insisted last week that "when you think about the loss of jobs and Congress is telling us that the only industry that should be protected in the world are those that manufacture guns, I think there's a disconnect."

The same reasoning could just as readily be applied to suing Ford or GM for the behavior of hit-and-run drivers. There's no principle involved here: Chicago and its lawyers just want the $443 million in windfall "damages" they've been seeking since filing a suit in 1998.

Democrats like to accuse Republicans of using guns as a "wedge issue" in the culture wars, but just ask Dean, Gore or Michigan Rep. John Dingell: The real problem for Democrats is a gap between their funding constituencies and their voting constituencies. And whenever it becomes a contest between trial-lawyer money and the voting power of gun owners, gun owners have trial lawyers beat every time.

Collin Levey writes Thursdays for editorial pages of The Times. E-mail her at clevey@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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