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  •   Midwestern Senators Break GOP Ranks in Gun Vote

    By Edward Walsh
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, May 21, 1999; Page A10

    During his successful campaign last year against then Illinois Democratic Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, Republican Peter Fitzgerald literally found himself under the gun.

    As a member of the state Senate, Fitzgerald had voted for a failed measure that would have allowed citizens who took special training to carry concealed weapons.

    Moseley-Braun saw an opening. Her first "attack" ad of the campaign targeted the concealed-weapons issue, accusing Fitzgerald of wanting to let people carry hidden guns "in the mall, on the playground, anywhere they choose."

    Yesterday, Fitzgerald was one of six Republican senators -- including three others from the industrial Midwest -- who held their ground and, for the second time in less than a week, broke party ranks to vote for the stronger Democratic version of a measure to require background checks on all firearms sales at gun shows.

    The other Republicans who voted for the gun show amendment were Sens. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), Mike DeWine (Ohio), George V. Voinovich (Ohio), John H. Chafee (R.I.) and John W. Warner (Va.). Their support was crucial, creating a 50-50 tie in the Senate and enabling Vice President Gore to cast the deciding vote in favor of the amendment.

    On such close, ideological votes in the Senate, it is usually the moderate Republicans from New England who are a risk to break party ranks. But yesterday, only Chafee, representing largely urban Rhode Island, voted with the Democrats. His fellow GOP moderates from the more rural New England states -- Sens. James M. Jeffords (Vt.), Susan Collins (Maine) and Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) -- voted with their southern and western colleagues against the amendment.

    Robert Teeter, a Michigan-based GOP pollster, said that in industrial states such as Ohio, Indiana and Illinois -- which have major cities and surrounding suburbs as well as long stretches of farmland -- the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., has made it even more important to adopt what centrist voters will consider a "reasonable" position on gun control.

    "For someone from a midwestern, middle-of-the-road state, you become more concerned about not looking like an extremist," he said. "In close states, you win by capturing the middle."

    When Moseley-Braun attacked Fitzgerald on the concealed-weapons issue last year, he countered by noting his support for the Brady handgun bill and the assault-weapons ban enacted by Congress. "I view myself as very much a centrist on firearms legislation," Fitzgerald said at the time. "I am not a captive of either extreme."

    According to David Axelrod, a Chicago-based Democratic consultant, ever since guns became a major political issue, Illinois "has never elected a pro-gun governor or senator. It is a kind of litmus-test issue and Fitzgerald knows that."

    Axelrod said that sentiment for "fairly aggressive gun legislation" is particularly strong in the Chicago suburbs, the key battleground in any statewide race, and that the same is true in the cities and suburbs of other industrial states.

    DeWine of Ohio said calls to his Washington office had overwhelmingly opposed new gun control legislation, but that when he was back in the state over the weekend people had approached him to thank him for his vote.

    Two of the midwestern Republicans who supported the gun show measure may have been motivated in part by their experiences trying to curb urban violence as big-city mayors. Voinovich is a former mayor of Cleveland who, as governor of Ohio, threatened to veto concealed-weapons legislation that was supported by members of his party.

    Lugar said that his thinking on gun issues was strongly shaped by his experience as mayor of Indianapolis beginning in the late 1960s, a time of widespread urban unrest. Since then, he said, he has sought a "common sense" approach to the issue and the "rejection of extremes."

    It was a point made by several Republicans. One GOP senator who asked not to be identified said some Republicans are growing concerned that the party would appear to be captive to the National Rifle Association.

    "When you're talking about voting straight down the line with the NRA, the reaction [of the public] is 'gee, you shouldn't do that,' " he said.

    Staff writer Terry M. Neal contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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