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(Alan Chartock's column "I PUBLIUS" originally appeared in The Berkshire Eagle on Saturday, March 24, 2000 and is reproduced here without permission.)
by Alan S. Chartock 
Republicans trapped by gun issue
Guns are an American curse. The thought of one more child killing another child with an unsecured handgun is too much for sane, thinking people. The thought of another Columbine High School is too much for any parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle or just plain human being anywhere in the world. 

Politicians are brokers. On the one hand, they take the money from National Rifle Association PACS. The only thing that trumps money in this political society is votes.

Money can help buy votes but a powerful, popular idea, like controlling guns, overcomes money. All of sudden, the politicians are scared out of their wits, particularly Republican pols who desperately want to keep control of the Congress and take the White House.

The Democrats have seized the issue. They have been fearless in staring down the muzzle of the NRA and declaring that the madness must end. Up to now, the Republicans have fallen for the gambit. They have resisted again and again, either because they are afraid of the NRA or because they have misjudged the sensibility of the American people.

That's why it is that New York Gov. George Pataki, who heretofore had been strangely silent about guns, came out with a plan that rivaled President Clinton's.

That had a lot of people shaking their heads. He did it without even a nod to Joseph Bruno, the Republican Senate Majority Leader who had been working on his own plan. What really had seasoned political observers going crazy is that Pataki was agreeing with Bill Clinton after having put all his eggs in George Bush's basket. It
looked like the Republican Pataki was supporting Clinton and giving the back of his hand to Bush, the very man he is desperately courting and counting on to make him vice president.

Former Gov. Mario Cuomo thinks it was a clever ploy, so Pataki could later say, "See, that's why he didn't make me his vice presidential candidate." But I don't think so. I think the Republicans see a very fast and very heavy train coming down the tracks and want to get out of the way.

Here's why. Every time the president speaks on this issue, he has a lot of top brass from some of the most prestigious police groups in the country standing behind him.

Then George W. Bush commended Pataki for his courage in addressing this issue.

That really widened a lot of eyes. Then Bush openly criticized NRA Executive Vice President Wayne La Pierre for suggesting that Clinton had put up with a certain amount of gun violence instead of enforcing the laws. The New York Times reports that Bush told their reporters, "I don't think that the NRA was right to characterize the president the way that they did." 

Republicans can read the polls. They know they can't take the issue away from Clinton and the Democrats. The most they can hope to do is to neutralize it and hope they can make up the difference in other places like tax cuts. As for Gov. Pataki, he may have seen another train coming down the same tracks. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Andrew Cuomo is known to be positioning himself for a run for governor. It is looking more and more like Pataki will be running for a third term, especially if Bush doesn't make it to the White House.

Unfortunately for Pataki, young Cuomo had negotiated a deal with the Smith and Wesson gun company for a series of reforms, including gun locks and background checks for weapons sold at gun shows, setting an industry standard.

Even worse for Republicans, the preeminent gun manufacturer, by acceding to the deal, seemed to be acknowledging that reforms had to be made. So Pataki, in order to take away his potential rival's biggest coup yet, had to agree with him in order to defuse the issue. Had he stayed with the more traditional pro-gun Republican position, he surely would have been on the losing side.

Now the die is cast. The Republicans know they are caught. There is little they can do to take the issue away from the Democrats. Many of their members in the Congress face political retribution from the gun lobby if they come out on the gun control side and that may have the effect of pitting the Republican presidential candidate against his congressional running mates. That is not a good place to be.

Finally, this country may be coming to its senses on the gun madness.

Alan Chartock is chairman and executive director of WAMC Public Radio in Albany, N.Y., and a SUNY professor of political science and communications. He makes his home in Great Barrington.

©2000 by MediaNews Group, Inc. and New England Newspapers, Inc.  Reproduced here without permission.

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