John F. Kerry accused President Bush yesterday of making it easier for terrorists to get dangerous weapons by allowing a ban on some semiautomatic firearms to lapse, as he waded deeper into the issue many Democrats believe cost Al Gore the election in 2000: gun control.
"In the al Qaeda manual on terror, they were telling people to go out and buy assault weapons, to come to America and buy assault weapons," Kerry told supporters in St. Louis. "Every law enforcement officer in America doesn't want us selling assault weapons in the streets of America. But George Bush, he says, 'Well, I'm for that.' "
Bush supports the federal ban on the importation of 19 types of semiautomatic weapons that is set to expire Monday, but the president has not pressured the Republican Congress to extend it. Kerry charged in Missouri that Bush has not pushed for an extension because he "caved in" to pressure from the National Rifle Association, a lobbying group that represents gun owners.
"America's streets will not be safe because of a choice George Bush is making," Kerry said. The Democratic nominee will attend an event in Washington on Monday with police officers and families to criticize Bush for refusing to act.
Kerry, who talks often of owning a gun and hunting, especially when speaking to rural voters, is calculating most gun owners will not vote against him for pushing for a ban on semiautomatic firearms, aides say. Kerry's advisers cite polling showing two of three voters support the ban as evidence that swing voters, especially suburban moms, might turn on Bush for failing to fight for the ban's extension.
"The more Kerry opens his mouth the more he reveals what he is: a Massachusetts gun-banner who in every single vote over the past 20 years has been on the wrong side of the Second Amendment," said Wayne LaPierre, NRA executive vice president. In the Senate, Kerry cast numerous votes contrary to NRA positions, including on legislation to ban guns, to impose waiting periods on gun buyers and to punish some gun manufacturers.
As for the ban, LaPierre said there are numerous firearms that are legal today that are as powerful as the ones outlawed by the ban. The ban does not apply to the sale or possession of those same weapons if they were legally held before the ban took effect in 1994.
As a presidential candidate, Kerry has veered away from the gun issue. Many Democrats believe Gore's support for gun-control proposals, such as clamping down on handgun sales, contributed to -- or caused -- his defeat in West Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas and Ohio. In Iowa, union officials told Democratic leaders after the election that hundreds of Democrats from union households opposed Gore because they were convinced by the NRA that Gore would take away their guns.
After leading the charge for the original ban in 1994, many Democrats have distanced themselves from the cause in recent years. The reason: Democrats lost the House that year as many members from rural areas, including then-Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), were tossed from office, in part, by angry gun owners. In this year's Democratic primaries, the candidates fell largely silent on gun control. Dozens of congressional Democrats oppose the ban today.
A new poll by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication suggests the tide may be turning in the gun debate. The survey found that 68 percent of Americans favor extending the ban on versions of Uzis, Tec-9s and the other firearms covered by the ban. Americans for Gun Safety, which counsels Democrats on gun issues, has tutored Kerry and others on ways to fight for the ban without offending staunch Second Amendment advocates.
Yet many political strategists believe it could be risky for Kerry to be seen as leading the movement for a gun ban, even a popular one. The NRA is planning to spend $400,000 a week until the election condemning Kerry's votes for gun control. LaPierre says the NRA will spend $20 million assisting Bush, Republicans and a few Democrats in this election -- and pointing out what he says are 59 anti-gun votes cast by the Massachusetts senator over the past 20 years.
"This has always been a political football, but this is a situation where this is very real issue for society" said Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry's campaign manager. The NRA "is going to do what they are going to do anyway."
Fear of the NRA is partly motivating Republicans, GOP officials say. Bush and the Republican Congress are counting on the NRA, which exerts influence not only through ads but by prodding its members on how to vote through direct-mail and newsletters, to help maximize the GOP turnout this fall, Republicans said. It is unlikely the NRA would actively oppose Republican leaders, but it might not work as hard for the party if Bush were to sign the ban 50 days before the election.
Democrats said the challenge for Kerry is to convince voters that his support of the ban is not indicative of a broader anti-gun agenda. At a Labor Day rally in Racine, W.Va., Kerry was presented with a union-made Remington shotgun, which he inspected and proudly held aloft, one of several photo ops his campaign has staged to highlight his support of guns for sportsmen.
Yesterday in Missouri, a swing state where Kerry is running well behind Bush, Kerry told the crowd: "I'm a hunter, and I respect it. I respect the Second Amendment. But I never thought about going hunting with an AK-47. . . . I mean, heavens to Betsy, folks, we've had that law on the books for the last 10 years, and there's not a gun owner in America who can stand up and say, 'They tried to take my guns away.' "
Farhi reported from St. Louis.