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Lots of Pro-Gun Support Pro-gun activists protesting outside President Clinton's speech on gun control in Denver last week.
- AP

WILLIAM Schneider couldn't believe his eyes. The CNN commentator and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute felt there must be something wrong with a recent CNN poll. It showed Americans are evenly divided on whether George W. Bush, who doesn't talk much about guns, or Al Gore, who has made gun control a theme of his presidential campaign, handles the "gun issue" better. Schneider requested the question be asked again. It was - with the same result.

The gun issue isn't supposed to be playing this way in 2000. Democrats, liberals, the press, most of the Washington political community, and even a good number of Republicans thought the politics of the issue had been transformed, post-Columbine. No longer would the intensity be on the side of the National Rifle Association and gun owners.

Now, it would be with middle-class voters, suburbanites, soccer moms, and others who favor sweeping gun control, including registration of all handguns. They would force queasy Republicans to swallow gun control or else lose in this fall's election.

Quite the opposite has happened. The intensity has shifted - strengthening the foes of gun control. NRA membership is soaring and may reach 4 million by year's end. Most Republicans feel politically secure on the gun issue, and President Clinton has jettisoned the not-so-popular phrase "gun control" in favor of "gun safety." Democrats made gun control the overriding issue last fall in the Virginia and New Jersey legislative races. The result was GOP capture of both houses of the Virginia legislature for the first time ever and easy Republican retention of the New Jersey statehouse.

In poll after poll, public support for gun control has dipped. More important, public belief that more gun restrictions are the answer to gun violence, especially among youths, has faded.

A new twist to the debate has been crucial in undermining the drive for gun control. This is the argument, stridently voiced by NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, that existing gun laws should be enforced before any new ones are enacted. "Finally, their side has an argument the public is receptive to," says Karlyn Bowman, who monitors polls for AEI.

Polls bear this out. A survey in April by ABC News/Washington Post asked whether "passing stricter gun control laws" or "stricter enforcement of existing laws" is the best way to curb gun violence. Enforcement was preferred by 53 percent to 33 percent. In a survey for YRock, the Young Republican Web site, GOP pollster Frank Luntz asked for reaction to this statement: "Passing gun laws is what keeps politicians' careers alive. Enforcing gun laws is what keeps the rest of us alive." Sixty percent agreed, 34 percent didn't.

By championing enforcement, Republicans have deftly adjusted to a change in the gun debate that Democrats were certain would help their side. In this regard, they first seized on Project Exile, a program in Richmond, Virginia, in which criminals who use guns are prosecuted in federal court, where trials are swifter and sentences harsher.

The Clinton administration privately opposed expansion of Project Exile until last year, when a Senate hearing on it was scheduled. The Saturday before, the president reversed the policy and used his radio address to praise the program.

The public has dramatically lost faith in gun control as a solution to violence in America, notably to gun violence in schools. What would have the greatest impact in reducing school violence? In the Luntz poll, only 10 percent said gun control; 77 percent said teaching about right and wrong. Given other choices, 84 percent said parental involvement was the answer; 14 percent answered gun control.

One person who hasn't been surprised by voters' attitudes about guns is Karl Rove, George W. Bush's chief strategist. Bush, of course, echoes the GOP line about first enforcing, and then tinkering with, existing gun laws. Rove characterizes the presidential race as between "one guy who says the answer is more gun control" and "the other guy who says we've got laws on the books people are breaking ... and while we need a few improvements, we need to send a message that when you use a gun, you go to jail." The second guy wins 60 percent to 20 percent, according to Rove. He exaggerates, but he and Bush understand that the new politics of gun control are a lot like the old.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard (, where this article first appeared.


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