President Clinton joined his vice president last night in rebuking George W. Bush for blaming a mass shooting in a Fort Worth church on "a wave of evil" rather than calling for greater gun control.
Neither the president nor Vice President Gore named Bush, but they left no doubt that they were focusing on the Texas governor in their back-to-back speeches at the Congressional Black Caucus's annual awards dinner here. They quoted Bush's remarks that followed Wednesday night's shooting deaths of seven people at a Baptist prayer service, and they placed their comments in the context of next year's presidential campaign.
Gore, the Democratic front-runner, has called for new gun restrictions, whereas Bush, the leading Republican contender, has said the nation must find other answers to gun violence.
Clinton told last night's audience that the United States has the world's highest murder rate and that nine times more American youths die from accidental shootings than do youths in the other major 20 industrialized nations combined.
"If you believe this is about the human heart, then you must believe--if the murder rate is higher here, and the accidental death rate is exponentially higher--you must believe we are both more evil and more stupid than other countries," the president said. Calling for tighter gun laws, he added, "Make this election year about assuming responsibility instead of ducking it."
Gore began the indirect criticisms of Bush on Friday in California, where he asked audiences, "How can we allow guns in churches?" His aides, meanwhile, reminded reporters that Bush signed legislation as governor that allows Texans to carry concealed weapons in churches.
Last night, Gore told the dinner audience, "My religious tradition says evil has always been with us, and we need to meet evil with good." Citing numerous mass shootings in the past year, Gore said, "a lot of these types of tragedies have happened when evil met a wave of guns."
Clinton, taking the podium next, expanded on Gore's remarks. "None of us should seek to make any capital out of these [mass killings]," he said. "All of us should seek to make sense of it."
Clinton said a combination of evil and access to guns prompted the Fort Worth shootings, in which a mentally troubled man named Larry Gene Ashbrook shot and killed seven people and wounded seven others before killing himself.
"Of course something horrible happened to that man's heart when he walked into that church in Texas," Clinton said. "But we cannot use that as an excuse."
Statistics leave no doubt that easy access to guns is a major reason for the nation's high death rate from shootings, he said. "The NRA [National Rifle Association] and that crowd has got to stop using arguments like this to avoid facing our shared responsibility," the president said.
In the 2000 elections, Clinton said, voters should ask of candidates, "are these people looking for a way to assume responsibility or to duck it?"
Clinton is urging Congress to pass new gun laws that would require criminal background checks on would-be buyers at gun shows. Such checks are mandatory in gun shops.
In the aftermath of the Fort Worth shootings, Bush blamed "a wave of evil" for which he said the remedy is "more love in society. . . . I don't know of a law--a governmental law--that will put love in people's hearts."
Bush campaign spokeswoman Mindy Tucker responded to Gore's first round of criticisms in California by saying, "I think the American people are tired of politicians trying to politicize every tragedy."
In last night's speeches, Clinton and Gore attacked the congressional Republican tax cut plan, which the president has vowed to veto. They said it would leave too little money for Social Security, Medicare and other needs.
"We ought to use this surplus to deal with the challenge of the aging of America," Clinton said to loud applause.
Gore cited the number of minorities in the Clinton administration, saying: "We believe we are one of the most successful administrations in history, not in spite of diversity, but because of diversity."
CAPTION: President Clinton addresses the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation awards dinner.