CBSNews.com Chief Political Writer
In his steady, serious monotone, Vice President Dick Cheney told the National Rifle Association's annual meeting Saturday that "John Kerry's approach to the Second Amendment has been to regulate, regulate and regulate some more."
Despite President Bush and Kerry holding the same position on the most pressing gun-control issues – extending the assault weapons ban, closing the gun show "loophole" and strictly enforcing existing gun laws – both the NRA and the Bush-Cheney campaign are attempting to drive centrist voters from Kerry by wedging the gun issue into the election.
Bush and Kerry's shared views on guns reflect the political realities facing both men. To win reelection, the president had to move to the center in order to gain support of moderate voters who back some measure of gun control.
Meanwhile, Kerry has had to present himself as a Second Amendment Democrat. He knows that former Vice President Al Gore lost the 2000 election in large part as a result of his strict gun-control stance.
Gore's national spokesman at the time, Doug Hattaway, remembers all too well.
"There were two businessmen behind me talking about the campaigning and my ears perked up when I heard them mention Gore," Hattaway recalled, describing a flight he took from Nashville to Washington, D.C., in the late summer of 2000. "The first thing I heard out of the guy's mouth was 'The problem with Gore is that he is going to take our guns away.' I was like 'Oh God.'"
Indeed, many Democrats believe Gore's gun-control position was a primary factor in his losing Southern states like Arkansas, West Virginia and even his home state of Tennessee. If Gore had won any of those states he would have won the election.
During the 2000 primary season, Bill Bradley sparred with Gore over who had the stronger gun-control platform. Gore stated that he supported licensing and registration of handguns. Gun owners were up in arms, not literally of course.
"Kerry has taken a much more tenable position than Gore by not embracing the gun registration and licensing policies that were floated in 2000," Hattaway said. "They are not going to pass anyway, so why lose elections over policies that aren't going to see the light of day."
According to an internal memo sent to Democratic strategists dated February 18, 2004, and obtained by CBSNews.com, "Gun ownership rates in states that George Bush carried were 53%, compared to 39% in Al Gore states."
The research, conducted by Penn Schoen & Berland for Americans for Gun Safety, found that gun owners favored Bush 50 to 37 percent, while non-gun owners favored a generic Democrat 51 to 35 percent. The memo later says that "by a margin of 55-19% gun owners say that 'Democrats blame law abiding gun owners for America's crime problem.'"
The memos recommendation: "To win, Democrats must use a moderate 'rights and responsibilities' message on guns."
Prior to Cheney's remarks to the NRA, the Kerry campaign sent a statement to journalists saying that "John Kerry is a gun owner and he believes in the right to bear arms." The Massachusetts senator has said he is against registering gun owners.
The most pressing gun-control issue currently on Capitol Hill is the 1994 assault weapons ban, set to expire on September 13. President Bush has said he would sign an extension, but the NRA is pressuring Republican lawmakers to scuttle the legislation before it leaves the House.
In March, the first attempt at extending the assault weapons ban, as well as background checks for customers at gun shows, failed because it was attached as an amendment to NRA-backed legislation that would have granted the firearms industry immunity from liability lawsuits when guns are used in crimes.
The NRA, with a $180 million annual budget, begrudgingly withdrew its support after the gun-control amendments were added. Republican leadership followed suit and killed the bill rather than accept the amended version.
"Gun control was disastrous for the Democrats in 1994 when the Democrats came out for gun control," Republican pollster Frank Luntz said.
"Gun control works only in major urban areas for Democrats and hurts them everywhere else," Luntz continued. "The Democrats are used to thinking about New York and Los Angeles and forgetting that there is a whole country in between."
Hattaway agreed, calling "this is an issue that Democrats cannot afford to ignore." He added, "The NRA is out there actively defining our candidates on this issue and Message 101 says, 'Define yourself on the issue, don't let your opponents define you.'"
The NRA has begun doing exactly that. The May issue of its monthly magazine, for example, branded Kerry as an anti-gun liberal. The headline read: "John Kerry to Gun Owners: Stick It!"
To counter this image, Kerry shoots pheasants with reporters in tow. In October of last year – after he railed against then-Democratic frontrunner Howard Dean for his opposition to the assault-weapons ban – Kerry went outside, brandished his 12-gauge shotgun and in two shots blew two pheasants out of the sky.
"The NRA's message on Democrats has been so extreme, I don't think it will be hard for us to knock it down," Hattaway said.
Apparently, Kerry intends to do this one shot at a time.