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In key contests, Democrats championing gun rights

Candidates gain favor with NRA

By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / July 14, 2010

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MANCHESTER, N.H. — Democratic candidates in key states are embracing gun owners’ rights, winning favor from the National Rifle Association, a lobby that has long been the target of disdain from the party faithful.

In New Hampshire, Representative Paul Hodes, a Democratic Senate candidate, has an “A minus’’ NRA rating, potentially insulating him from progun rights attacks in a state that’s big on hunting and personal liberties.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid, in a bruising campaign for reelection in Nevada, has conservative activists buzzing because the NRA is considering endorsing his reelection.

Indiana’s Democratic Senate candidate Brad Ellsworth, who has an “A’’ rating from the NRA, may get the group’s endorsement this fall over GOP candidate Dan Coats, whom the NRA criticized in mailings to Hoosiers as being weak on gun rights.

And in Kentucky, Democratic Senate candidate Jack Conway has not only heralded gun rights but also signed friend-of-the court briefs supporting gun owners before two landmark Supreme Court rulings backing their rights in District of Columbia and Chicago cases.

“I think there’s been a change in the country as a whole,’’ said Jon Delano, an independent political analyst associated with Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “Unless you’re from an urban area, where gun violence is so intense that there’s a feeling you need to control these weapons, the vast majority across the country do not support gun control.’’

Democratic candidates, Delano said, are simply following that trend.

The Obama administration, much to the disappointment of gun control advocates, has made no moves toward proposing restrictions on firearms. President Obama signed a law that included allowing people to bring guns onto national parks. Despite Obama’s behavior and the court victories, voters in critical electoral battlegrounds remained worried about their Second Amendment rights, and candidates scrambled to reassure them.

“I represent people in a state that has a very long and proud tradition of responsible gun ownership. I also believe the Constitution means what it says — it’s important to protect fundamental and individual liberties, whether it’s the right of a gun owner or the right of a woman to choose,’’ said New Hampshire’s Hodes, a gun owner who is trying to seize one of the few GOP seats up for grabs this fall, that of retiring Senator Judd Gregg.

All four of the major Republican contenders vying to face Hodes in November are vocal gun rights supporters, keeping with the GOP platform. In interviews, former state attorney general Kelly Ayotte, attorney Ovide Lamontagne, and businessmen Bill Binnie and Jim Bender all ardently affirmed their commitments to gun rights and said Granite State residents wouldn’t have it any other way.

Ayotte has drawn some criticism from gun owners because of her opposition to a state bill that would have dramatically expanded the “castle doctrine’’ to allow people to protect themselves with guns in public places. Ayotte said law enforcement officials — whose support she enjoys in the primary — believed the measure threatened public safety. She said, however, “I am a very strong Second Amendment supporter.’’

“It speaks to liberty,’’ Binnie said, affirming his progun stance. Lamontagne said “the Second Amendment is a tenet of my candidacy’’ and expressed skepticism that Hodes would attract progun voters.

While Republicans still tend to capture more endorsements and campaign contributions from the NRA, Democrats have made inroads. In 2002, Democrats took just 11 percent of the contributions the NRA made to candidates in federal campaigns; this election cycle, they’ve received 28 percent, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Conservatives across the country see gun ownership as a concrete example of the balance of power between government and the individual, activists say. Unhappy with what they call a “government takeover’’ of health care and big businesses, gun owners see the Second Amendment as the final frontier of individual freedom, they say.

“I’ve never seen the degree of genuine concern, and in some cases, anger, either rational or irrational, toward government,’’ said Ralph Demicco, the owner of Riley’s gun store in Hooksett, N.H. “People feel left out of the equation. They feel isolated.’’

The Sept. 11 attacks and the Hurricane Katrina disaster made gun owners more nervous about the ability of law enforcement agencies to protect them, Demicco said. The recession has upped that anxiety, he said, since budget cuts have forced municipalities to lay off police officers.

Obama has largely avoided the volatile gun issue since his campaign-era controversy, when, during a private fund-raiser, he said some voters “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or antitrade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.’’

Obama supports reauthorizing the ban on assault weapons, but has not made a push to do so, with the White House arguing the best short-term solution is to enforce the laws on the books.

Peter Helmke, the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said he is very frustrated with the behavior of many Democrats for either toeing the NRA line or remaining silent. “Part of it goes back to this myth that the Democrats lost Congress in ’94 because of guns,’’ said Helmke, a former GOP mayor and onetime Republican nominee for the Senate in Indiana. “It was maybe a few races. If it was an issue, how did Bill Clinton get reelected in ’96?’’ Helmke said of the president who signed the assault weapons ban.

But Democrats got scared, he said, and have increasingly sought to mollify gun owners.

Andrew Arulanandam, the NRA spokesman, said the Democrats were merely reflecting what he called “mainstream America. I think what you’re seeing is a realization that it’s bad politics to be on the wrong side of the gun issue,’’ Arulanandam said.

The Democratic Party in recent years has eased its rhetoric on gun control, and the party picked up House seats in Western and rural areas in part because it recruited progun candidates more suited to their constituencies. This year’s Democratic campaigns follow the same model, said Eric Schultz, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Republicans say they will not be outflanked by Democrats — especially in New Hampshire, where gun owners are gearing up later this month for a machine-gun summer shoot, sponsored by the Pemi-Baker Valley Republican Committee.

“Conservatives aren’t going to accept any position Paul Hodes takes on the Second Amendment, given his support for so many other liberal policies,’’ said Ryan Williams, spokesman for the New Hampshire Republican Party.

Susan Milligan can be reached at milligan@globe.com.

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