As a state lawmaker here, Republican Johnny Isakson helped write the Georgia law calling for instant background checks of gun purchases and supported the federal ban on assault weapons. So when he ran earlier this year to succeed retiring House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) in the affluent northern suburbs here known as the Golden Crescent, opponents called him too liberal on gun control.
But even in this solidly Republican district, where Robert J. Dole captured 61 percent of the vote in 1996, Isakson's moderate position on guns didn't hurt: He won a six-way race for Gingrich's seat with 65 percent of the vote.
Isakson's success highlights the evolving politics of gun control in crucial suburban districts, even Republican ones, where voters and elected officials have become increasingly receptive in recent years to at least modest new restrictions on handguns. "Guns in schools have become a major issue in suburban areas," said Democratic pollster Ron Lester. "For years, they [suburbanites] just thought it was a black inner-city issue. Now it goes beyond just the right to have a gun to a public safety issue now. And voters want to see the government respond to this problem."
Isakson believes he is where most of his constituents--and most of the nation--are on gun control: They believe the Second Amendment provides citizens the right to bear arms. But they support some restrictions on access to firearms by children and criminals. On the other hand, they are skeptical of long waiting periods and limitations on how many guns an individual can purchase.
"Isakson is kind of the prototype of the new emerging suburban voter, which is not as conservative as conventional wisdom would dictate," said Republican pollster Linda DiVall, who polls for Isakson and Elizabeth Dole, the only GOP presidential candidate so far to advocate strong gun control measures. "His approach [on guns] is not necessarily seen as liberal but practical."
Indeed, 63 percent of the public favors stronger gun control laws, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. Moreover, suburban residents are as likely as violence-plagued urban residents to support a range of gun control measures--with more than eight out of 10 supporting trigger locks and background checks at gun shows. In rural areas, support is significantly lower.
Nonetheless, most voters continue to believe strongly that the Constitution protects the right of individuals to bear arms, including handguns. About two-thirds oppose a nationwide ban on sale of handguns, the poll showed. And voters are evenly split on whether there should be a national ban on carrying concealed weapons.
The mood in the country helps explains why congressional Republicans, traditionally resistant to any new gun control, are looking this fall for a way out of the legislative standoff over the issue.
This summer, a package of gun control measures died amid partisan wrangling in the House. But with Congress back this week, the issue could be revived as the House negotiates a compromise with the Senate, which passed gun control legislation as a part of its juvenile justice bill.
"There will be a bill, and it ain't going to be what the Senate did and it'll be stronger than" legislation that failed in the House, said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The Post-ABC poll showed that on specific measures, more than 70 percent of Republicans say they support mandatory trigger locks, requiring background checks for gun show purchasers and a nationwide ban on all assault weapons.
Interviews with a couple of dozen Republican voters and officials in Atlanta's northern suburbs, a few weeks before and a few weeks after the July shooting rampage here by a disturbed day trader, suggest an opening for candidates of either party to use gun control to attract votes, but particularly for Democrats if the GOP-Congress fails to pass any restrictions.
Democrats hope to appeal next year to voters like Sunny Walker, a 51-year-old resident in Isakson's district, who typically votes Republican and has opposed most gun control measures. But Walker said she was appalled at the violent attacks in Georgia. "I was profoundly affected by that, much more than I anticipated," said Walker, who owns a print and framing shop. "My position did change, most definitely" on gun control. She now favors many restrictions on guns, especially assault weapons and high-caliber ammunition.
But interviews with other voters in the district demonstrate the complexity of the issue and potential pitfalls to both parties. Public sentiment may have shifted, but many voters continue to have conflicted thoughts about the government's role in dealing with gun violence.
Many voters here are concerned about what the government can do to stem the flow of guns to children and criminals without abridging the rights of law-abiding citizens. At one of the recent local GOP's monthly meetings in Fulton County, Aubrey Osten, a local real estate broker, said the government "is trying to punish 99 percent of the nation for the 1 percent that's committing all of the crime." But when asked about individual gun control measures--child safety locks, background checks at gun shows and closing a loophole that allows people under 21 to purchase handguns from nonlicensed dealers--Osten said he supported them all.
Sandra B. Johnson, a Republican and a member of the Alpharetta City Council, said: "I am a hunter myself, and I strongly believe in the right of citizens to have guns. On the other hand, I'm not at all intimidated by teenagers not being able to buy guns. And background checks are fine with me too. There are too many crazies out there who buy them."
While most Republicans in northern suburban Atlanta acknowledge a shift of opinion on gun control, they say it's easy to overestimate, or misjudge, the politics of gun control here--even after the shootings at Heritage High School near here this spring and the rampage by Mark Barton, who killed nine people at two Atlanta brokerage firms, his family and himself.
B.J. Van Gundy, chairman of the 6th District GOP, said most people do not follow the minutiae of the debate in Congress. For instance, he said, most voters would say they support closing the gun show loophole, "but most people would say a three-day waiting period is a direct infringement on the Second Amendment. You are denying someone's right, even if it's for a few days." He continued: "What you've got is people saying, 'I am rethinking my position.' What they have not said is 'I'm jumping on the liberal bandwagon to go out and ban everything I can.' "
Other voters--a minority in this district--oppose almost all forms of gun control.
"What they ought to do is concentrate on enforcing the laws they have and putting some of these criminals in jail," said Carl Noon, an 81-year-old retiree, who proudly flashed his concealed handgun permit.
Many Republicans argue that Democrats tend to overreach--they point to the ban on assault rifles in the early 1990s--and said that will ultimately hurt them, particularly in moderate to conservative suburban areas like Georgia's 6th. Many political observers believe that the only voters motivated by the assault weapon ban were angry gun owners, who contributed to the Democratic debacle of 1994.
"You have to question whether the Democrats are making themselves vulnerable," said Atlanta-based GOP pollster Whit Ayres. "The people who vote on and care most about gun issues tend to be gun owners, people who are far more sympathetic to the NRA perspective."
Some Republicans also argue that while gun control might increasingly appeal to suburban GOP female voters--the Post-ABC poll showed 86 percent of women and 67 percent of men favor a national assault weapon ban; 84 percent of women and 66 percent of men favor mandatory registration of firearms--there are other issues candidates can use to appeal to them--education, Social Security, health care--that will not simultaneously turn off rural white male voters, as gun control does.
Democrats view Texas Gov. George W. Bush as vulnerable on the issue of gun control and Vice President Gore already has attacked him on it. Aides said Bush was ready for the inevitable questions with a position that emphasized the need to enforce current laws and get tough on those who abuse guns. But it also called for accepting the congressional Republican compromise on gun control, which calls for, among other things, banning high-capacity magazines, instant background checks at gun shows and raising the age for handgun ownership from 18 to 21.
Bush called those measures "reasonable" when he was asked about the specific gun control measures pending in Congress at a recent campaign stop here. That promoted the NRA to issue a complaint to his campaign. A Bush campaign source said his statement puts him right where he wants to be: inoculated from criticism on the left that he is in the pocket of the NRA, while not appearing extreme on the issue to most other GOP primary voters.
Georgia Republican Chairman Chuck Clay, who attended the Bush campaign event in Cobb County, said the candidate was safe with suburban voters with his gun position. "There is a sense of urgency and concern about this problem," Clay said. "The feeling is no longer guns at any cost. On the other hand, we still believe there is a Second Amendment."
Washington Post-ABC News Poll
Q: Do you favor or oppose stricter gun control laws in this country?
No opinion 2%
Q: Would you support or oppose a law requiring:
Background checks on people buying guns at gun shows: 90%
Trigger locks on all stored guns: 79%
A nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons: 77%
All handgun owners to register their firearms with the government: 75%
A nationwide ban on gun sales by mail order and over the Internet: 66%
A nationwide ban on people carrying a concealed weapon: 49%
A nationwide ban on the sale of handguns, except to law enforcement officers: 32%
This Washington Post-ABC News poll is based on telephone interviews Aug. 30-Sept. 2 with 1,526 randomly selected adults. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points. Sampling error is only one of many potential sources of error in this or any other public opinion poll. Interviewing was conducted by TNS Intersearch of Horsham, Pa.