FOR ALL the smoke over Iraq, the economy, Vietnam service, and National Guard duty, the fire that actually stokes the presidential election was visible this week as the assault weapons ban expired.
It did not matter that 87 percent of Americans in a January Gallup survey said they wanted gun laws either to stay the same or become more strict. It did not matter that 86 percent of respondents in a November CBS poll said the same thing. It did not matter that 78 percent of Americans in a November Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll said they wanted the assault weapons ban to stay intact. It does not matter that police chiefs all over the United States wanted the ban to stay.
The people and not even the police matter when the National Rifle Association opens fire on Capitol Hill. Only two days after the nation noted the third anniversary of Sept. 11 and the murders of nearly 3,000 Americans by a foreign terrorist network, Congress turned right around and invited an increase in local terror.
On the stump, Vice President Dick Cheney blasts foreign terrorists who "mean to do everything they can to destroy our way of life." On the podium, vice presidential challenger John Edwards warns terrorists, "You cannot run, you cannot hide, we will destroy you." Yet a Democratic Party that is running scared and a Republican Party that is hiding behind protocol let the NRA do everything it could to destroy the ban in a nation where nearly 30,000 lives a year are destroyed by guns, 10 times more than 9/11.
The NRA website proudly celebrated the death of the ban by praising "the tireless efforts of millions of NRA members and tens of millions of American gun owners over the past 10 years." There can be no mistake that those tens of millions of gun owners were backed by tens of millions of dollars.
In 2002, Fortune magazine named the NRA the most powerful lobby in Washington for its combination of cash and grass-roots activism. Since 1990, gun rights forces have given $17.3 million to candidates and political parties, with 85 percent of the money going to Republican causes. Since 1997 they have spent $35.1 million on general lobbying. Since 1989 the gun lobby, mostly the NRA, spent an additional $22.2 million on communications to its members and airing political ads. Nearly $20 million of the money was spent to support Republican candidates and oppose Democratic candidates.
That is at least $75 million the gun lobby has spent in the last 15 years, according to statistics kept by the Center for Responsive Politics. That is compared with the paltry $4.1 million the gun control lobby is known to have spent in the same time periods.
The payoff for the gun lobby was this week. As a candidate in 1999, President Bush said, "It makes no sense for assault weapons to be around our society." But in April of this year, Vice President Cheney appeared before the NRA and said: "Gun owners and manufacturers know exactly where the president stands, going all the way back to his days as governor of Texas. He led successful efforts to protect firearm manufacturers then from frivolous lawsuits and to give the citizens of Texas the right to carry a firearm to protect themselves." We knew where Bush stood: on the sidelines saying nothing as his fellow Republicans buried the renewal of the ban in Congress.
The presidential challenger, John Kerry, of course accused Bush of standing on the sidelines. But Kerry keeps trying to play both sides. Many analysts of the 2000 election believe that Al Gore lost key states because he was perceived as anti-gun. So Kerry, forgetting the lessons of Michael Dukakis in a tank, went to West Virginia, accepted a rifle as a gift from Cecil Roberts, the president of the United Mine Workers, and played Charlton Heston. "It's a beautiful piece. It's a beautiful gift, Cecil," Kerry said. "But I can't take it to the debate with me."
This dumb joke about shooting the president makes you wonder what's next from Kerry -- some nonsense about no one prying this beautiful piece out of his cold, dead hands? It is one reason many Democrats fear that Kerry is running a cold, dead campaign. The NRA kept Bush from speaking his mind. It made Kerry lose his mind. It stripped Congress of any spine. Nearly nine in 10 Americans wanted gun laws to stay the same or become more strict. This week they became less strict. The invariable result will be more cold, dead hands.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.