As a senior adviser to President Clinton last
year, I pushed hard to put gun control front and center for the president
and the Democratic Party. We engaged the National Rifle Association
directly in a bruising battle. I personally stayed up half the night on a
presidential trip to India for the chance to trade insults with NRA
Executive Director Wayne LaPierre on "Meet the Press."
I did this because I believed in the issue and thought it was good politics. Put simply, I got it wrong. At my urging, the White House allowed the NRA to shift the debate away from common-sense safety measures to a demagogic debate on the right to own firearms. We managed to bring the White House and the president down to the level of the NRA, rather than raising the debate in a way that would have made the NRA irrelevant.
Seasoned and savvy political observers now argue that gun control cost Al Gore the presidency and the Democrats control of the House and Senate. While I believe this analysis is overstated, it is clear gun safety was not a winning issue for Democrats in 2000.
So what should Democrats do now on gun safety issues? Serious and thoughtful party leaders are privately warning candidates to stay away from the gun debate completely. But while these important Democrats have diagnosed the disease correctly -- a party that appears out of touch with the values of the 48 percent of the electorate that owns guns (a number approaching 70 percent in southern and mountain states) -- they're prescribing the wrong medicine: a full retreat from the issue.
No one doubts Democrats will have a hard-time winning elections if they ignore or insult the values of gun-owning Americans. But trying to avoid the issue won't work.
First, it's just not politically practical. In many districts, voters demand that more be done to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and kids, so gun safety advocates in Congress will fight for, and get, votes on their issue. Moreover, even if the party could shut down discussion on gun safety, it would backfire in many states and in presidential elections. A national candidate competing for votes in delegate-rich states such as New York and California will need to talk about guns.
Second, there are genuine policy needs on guns: closing the gaping holes in our laws that allow criminals to get guns; passing tougher gun crime penalties; giving law enforcement the real tools it needs to crack down on gun traffickers.
Finally, betting on the NRA to stay out of most races, much less endorse Democrats, is a sure loser. While the NRA is not quite an arm of the Republican Party, nothing will stop it from labeling most Democrats as anti-gun. From the NRA's perspective, the only good gun law is a repealed gun law -- a position few Democrats would back.
Democrats have approached the issue of guns like a novice driver, drifting too far to the left after Columbine, with calls for sweeping federal gun laws by candidates Gore and Bradley, then trying to yank the wheel back to the right.
Democrats should embrace a "third way" on guns that treats gun ownership as neither an absolute right nor an absolute wrong but as a balance between rights and responsibilities. This third way approach -- respecting gun owners' rights while supporting common-sense gun safety laws -- won overwhelmingly in ballot initiatives in Colorado and Oregon last fall. Voters in both states enacted laws requiring background checks at gun shows, thanks in large part to the efforts of Sen. John McCain and a new group on the scene, Americans for Gun Safety. That same duo is pushing a similar common-sense proposal this year in Congress -- the McCain-Lieberman bill -- that protects gun rights, closes the gun show loophole nationwide and helps crack down on gun crime.
In campaigns, Democrats must stand for exactly these kinds of gun safety provisions -- making clear that those who oppose tough enforcement of the current gun laws and closing the major holes in those laws are not pro-gun but anti-gun-safety. These shifts in attitude, policy and message will not appease the NRA. But they will speak directly to gun owners, over 90 percent of whom are not NRA members and 65 percent of whom, according to a national poll, believe gun ownership is a right that allows for sensible gun laws.
For Democrats, and like-minded Republicans, the answer is not to give up, give in or plow mindlessly ahead. It is to reach to the center, listen to gun owners, solve real problems and fight for gun rights and responsibilities.
The writer was White House press secretary from October 1998 to October 2000.
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