In a visit to a city still reeling from two highly publicized murderous rampages, Texas Gov. George W. Bush said today he supported "reasonable" gun control measures such as those backed by congressional Republicans this year.
The GOP presidential candidate said he supports raising the age for gun ownership from 18 to 21 and banning certain high-capacity ammunition clips. Bush also would support closing the loophole that allows unlicensed dealers to sell guns at gun shows without background checks for purchasers--provided, he said, that new background checks could be done instantaneously. Democrats are insisting on up to three days for an FBI background check.
"I support them all; they all are reasonable measures," Bush said during a campaign stop here, adding that he was still committed to the idea that "innocent people, law-abiding citizens, ought to be allowed to own a gun."
Bush was asked by a reporter today about provisions in a Republican bill that will be negotiated in Congress next month. Most congressional Republicans earlier this year opposed additional gun control legislation but were forced by political pressure to offer their own compromise version. While Bush has generally supported the GOP congressional position on gun control measures, aides said he had not been asked about some of the specific provisions.
Today, Bush said he believed it was possible to "have reasonable laws to keep the guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them. That's why I support instant background checks." But he echoed a sentiment common among Republicans that not enough has been done to enforce current laws. "When we find someone illegally selling a gun, there should be a consequence."
Democrats immediately pounced on Bush's statements, saying he was trying to obscure his right-wing record on gun control. They noted that Bush opposes mandatory child safety locks on guns, and had signed legislation allowing most citizens to carry concealed weapons as well as legislation that preempted the ability of cities in Texas to file lawsuits against the gun industry. They also repeated criticism Bush received from opponents in Texas this year that he did little to push a bill in the legislature that would have mandated background checks at gun shows.
"George Bush hasn't moved an inch on his gun safety position," said Roy Romer, general chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "His record is lock, stock and barrel with the NRA. The proof is in his record."
Gun control advocates today also criticized Bush's record as governor. "The governor is vehemently anti-gun control and he has done more to promote gun violence than to prevent it," said Nina Butts, spokeswoman for Texans Against Gun Violence.
Bush signed a juvenile crime bill during the 1995 legislative session making it a crime to allow minors access to guns. He also signed a bill making jail time mandatory for juveniles caught with firearms. Nonetheless, Bush's efforts to keep guns out of the hands of children have not mollified supporters of stricter gun control.
"I suspect that what's happened here is the governor is realizing this is a very important issue to the American people and he is trying to back away from his very long record of supporting the gun lobby," said Joe Sudbay, director of state legislation at Handgun Control Inc.
Georgia GOP chairman Chuck Clay said many Republican voters, particularly those in suburban areas such as wealthy Cobb County in the Atlanta area--where Bush visited today--support moderate gun control measures. "There's no Republican monolith on gun control," he said.
Last week, questions about past drug use obscured all else in the Bush campaign. During this week's three-day swing through North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, Bush fielded only a couple of indirect questions that referred to his past without specifically mentioning drug use. Reporters instead peppered him with questions on a variety of other subjects, and Bush sought to define himself to a broader electorate that might not be familiar with his record or positions on the issues.
Touring an Atlanta homeless shelter and social services agency run by a group of religious organizations, Bush said he opposed gay marriage but welcomed gays into the party and hoped they would vote for him. He also denounced a judge's decision in Cleveland to overturn a school voucher program saying, "I think the judge overreached." And evoking differences with the protectionist wing of his party, Bush advocated free trade, declaring that "it is the fearful who build walls; it is the confident who tear them down."
But there were also some questions that Bush refused to answer. Today, he suggested that controlling urban sprawl is a local and not a federal responsibility. In South Carolina on Wednesday, he ducked two of the state's hot political issues: Should the Confederate battle flag continue to fly over the statehouse and should voters approve video gambling and a state lottery. Bush said both those questions were best left to South Carolinians.
Yesterday, Bush was in North Carolina, where he visited a job training center in the Heritage Park public housing project in Raleigh. He also attended a $1,000-a-plate fund-raising dinner in Raleigh, where he said he would oppose any new tax increases on cigarettes.
Bush continued to show his dominance in raising money, raking in about $250,000 today at a $1,000-a-plate luncheon at the Renaissance Waverly Hotel. In all, Bush aides said, the campaign expected to raise slightly more than $1 million in the three-day swing.
Neal reported from Atlanta; White reported from Washington.