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Republican Presidential Candidates in US Appeal to Gun Owners


Gun control issues have faded into the background of national politics in the United States -- since Democrat Al Gore lost a close election for president in 2000. Many in his party blamed the defeat on a backlash from voters who disagreed with the party's push for a few gun control measures in the 1990s. VOA's Jim Fry looks at the politics of gun control as America heads toward another presidential election.

While scholars estimate only one in four American adults own a firearm, an ability to do so is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Gun politics can have a powerful influence on U.S. elections.

Former Senator Fred Thompson – one of the leading Republican candidates for president – tells gun enthusiasts of his fervor. "My first trip to New Hampshire after I announced my candidacy, I went to a gun store."

Thompson, and other leading Republicans candidates, recently spoke to a gathering of the private National Rifle Association -- known as the N.R.A. Senator John McCain sometimes departs from his party's political line, but he does not do so here. When asked how important that interest group is in this election, he responded, "I think they're very important. They represent the heartland and grass roots of our Republican Party."

Politically active pro-gun groups oppose nearly all legislation that would regulate private possession and sale of firearms. In recent years, they have mostly gotten their way.

A ban on sale of military-style assault weapons expired in 2004. The N.R.A. claims credit for the defeat of Democrat Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election. And N.R.A. officials told activists in Washington that a recent public opinion poll found two-thirds of respondents agree that no new guns laws are needed.

N.R.A. Executive vice president Wayne LaPierre recently said to the candidates, "You're here because you get it and because you know that those who don't get it usually don't win national elections in this country."

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has battled for new gun control laws for about two decades. The group's president, Paul Helmke, says he learned – as a small city mayor in the Midwest – that gun issues rarely decided local congressional elections. "The N.R.A. has been successful in spinning the idea that they are powerful politically."

He points to Bill Clinton's easy re-election in 1996 after championing the assault weapons ban.

But N.R.A. donors provide significant campaign funding. A watchdog group counted more than $16 million injected into federal campaigns from 1990 through 2006. And one handgun control group recently erected a billboard in Boston – mimicking a ransom note – stating the N.R.A. is holding the president and Congress hostage.

Seeking N.R.A. support, Republican Rudy Giuliani said to the group, "I think we did well, thank you" -- attempting to explain away his support of gun control measures as New York City mayor.

But the N.R.A. crowd gave its loudest ovations to Thompson -- who has roots in the rural south.

While the leading Democratic Party contenders have been mostly silent about gun control issues, Senator Barak Obama, early this year, spoke of students murdered on Chicago streets. "Then it is time for us to stand up to the gun lobby and say – ‘Enough!’ "

Gun control advocate Paul Helmke says nearly all the Democratic contenders have supported gun control measures. "Clearly, after the two parties choose their nominees, this could be one of the defining issues between the two major party candidates."

Despite incidents, like the massacre at a Virginia university last spring, supporters of gun rights claim they hold the upper hand in national politics.

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