Don’t Lose Gun Vote, Democratic Pollsters Urge

Posted February 20, 2004 at 5:51pm

Trying to create a new brand of “Second Amendment Democrats,” a group of Democratic strategists is trying to position the party as staunch defenders of gun rights while being equally tough on gun crimes.

In a memo titled “Winning the Gun Vote,” one of the party’s leading pollsters urges Congressional Democrats to take a moderate path by “forcefully backing the right to own a gun” rather than just ducking the issue altogether, preventing conservative opponents such as the National Rifle Association to label them as anti-gun.

“Silence on the gun issue only hardens voters’ negative perceptions of Democrats. To earn increased gun owner trust, Democrats must pro-actively define their current positions on guns — as Second Amendment Democrats, who back tough enforcement of all federal gun laws and support centrist gun policies,” wrote Mark Penn of the polling firm Penn, Schoen & Berland.

Penn co-wrote the memo with Jon Cowan, the president of Americans for Gun Safety, and Doug Hattaway, a 2000 campaign aide to Al Gore and now a media strategist whose clients have included Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

The group contends that to win Congressional seats and the White House, Democrats must “clearly articulate their centrist message on guns,” citing Penn’s polling data contending that 47 percent of voting households have guns and 54 percent of union households have guns. Getting on the right political side of the gun issue, Penn and company wrote, “ensure[s] that union members can vote their gun and their union.”

The memo, which was issued last week in advance of a pending Senate debate on legislation that would exempt weapons manufacturers from any civil lawsuits, is the latest shot in the battle over the political fallout of being viewed as a party that favors gun control.

Many strategists believe that Democrats are losing races in poor regions such as West Virginia and Arkansas that should otherwise be receptive to the party’s economic message because of their portrayal as being anti-gun. They contend that Democrats must first articulate their support for gun “rights” but also demonstrate support for gun “responsibilities” by banning assault weapons, closing the so-called gun-show loophole and strictly enforcing existing anti-gun laws.

This new approach to guns, a vast departure from the party’s themes of cracking down on crime by supporting gun-control measures such as waiting periods in the 1990s, is taking deep roots politically.

The Penn-Hathaway-Cowan memo was distributed to Senate Democrats and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which sent it to every one of its candidates.

“You find very few people in the country who don’t support the Second Amendment,” said Brad Woodhouse, DSCC spokesman. “There is a way for the Democrats to deal with the gun issue in a way that they can win the votes of gun owners.”

The issue may be of particular salience to Senate Democrats, who are defending ground in five open seats in the South, in addition to their toughest incumbent battle being Daschle’s in South Dakota and one of their best pick-up opportunities coming in Alaska. In all seven of those states, the thinking goes, getting pegged as an anti-gun candidate could be critically damaging to the Democrat.

Daschle and his top deputy, Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who isn’t even facing a tough re-election battle, are supporting the bill to grant the liability exemption to the gun industry that should hit the floor by early March. For his support of the measure, the NRA sent out flyers last week to its South Dakota members urging them to call Daschle and thank him, an unusual show of support for a Congressional Democratic leader from such a staunchly conservative group.

Democrats expect to try to attach a pair of measures favored by gun-control advocates: the extension of the assault weapons ban and the gun-show loophole measure. One GOP aide, however, said the gun-liability bill has so much bipartisan support on its own that Republican leaders are “trying to keep it as clean as possible.”

Despite complaints from activist groups such as the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, some Democratic strategists believe their new rhetoric as Second Amendment Democrats shouldn’t be viewed as giving up their past positions or abdicating their anti-crime message of the 1990s.

In supporting the assault weapons ban and ending a gun-show loophole, Penn and Hattaway offered a pair of talking-point items for candidates to say that won more than 80 percent approval in their polling of gun owners:

• “I take a back seat to no one in supporting the Constitutional right to own a gun. I also support requiring criminal background checks at gun shows and continuing the ban on assault weapons.”

• “I will bring our local gun values to Washington. That means respecting the right to own a gun and making sure our gun laws do not leave loopholes that help criminals, terrorists or illegal aliens get hold of guns.”

In his polling, Penn found that “red” states that President Bush won in 2000 had an average gun-ownership rate of 53 percent, compared to 39 percent in “blue” states that Gore won. In an October 2003 poll for the White House race, Bush led a generic Democratic nominee 50 percent to 37 percent among gun owners, while nongun owners supported the Democrat 51 percent to 35 percent.

“By articulating their true values,” Penn wrote, “Democrats can speak to millions of moderate gun owners and make inroads in many states and districts where owning a firearm is a way of life.”