Leading candidates seeking the Democrat Party’s presidential nomination in 2004 are shying away from public discussions of gun control because the issue is widely seen as a contributing factor in the loss of the White House and Congress in recent past elections, says a news analysis of the issue reported by the Hartford Courant.

“Democrats are nervous about these issues,” Peter Hamm, communications director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, told the newspaper, “but they really don’t need to be.”

Not all Democratic supporters and strategists, however, agree with Hamm’s assessment, especially for Democrats further away from the confines of the Washington Beltway.

“I know there are concerns in large cities, but I want to hear candidates stand up and say they support the Second Amendment,” Edgar Malepeai, vice chairman of the Idaho Democratic Party, told the Courant.

Montana Democratic Chairman Bob Ream said the pro-gun control “attitude has been a real problem in the West.”

“Republicans have painted Democrats as people who will take your guns away,” he said, according to the Hartford daily.

But Republicans point out Democrats most often vote to add limits or restrictions to firearms ownership and access. In the 1990s, for example, the most influential gun control initiative – the so-called “assault weapons ban” passed in 1994 – was championed by Democrats in the House and Senate and supported enthusiastically by President Bill Clinton.

Gun control groups such as the Brady Campaign also track lawmakers’ and candidates’ votes on such issues, the Courant said. The group notes Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who is vying for his party’s 2004 nomination, has a 90 percent support rating on gun-control initiatives, the Harford paper said.

But the perception Democrats are rabid anti-gunners is taking hold in candidates, at least rhetorically.

According to the Courant, Lieberman, for instance, has said “citizens have a right to own firearms.” Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., also a Democratic presidential candidate, said last month, “I support the right of any law-abiding citizen to own and use firearms for legal purposes. It’s important for all of us to say that in our country.”

Another candidate, said the newspaper, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, has talked of how he has hunted since he was 8 years old. And one of the nation’s most liberal lawmakers, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, says, “I’m sensitive to guns. It’s possible to have gun laws that in no way interfere with hunters.”

One of Democrats’ most favorite presidential contenders, Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont – the first state to pass a hassle-free concealed carry law – says he supports background checks and the current ban on assault weapons, but otherwise would “let states do what they want.” With that platform, he says, according to the Courant, “I can run in the West.”

Such talk, say gun rights advocates, is just smoke and mirrors.

“Our members are very savvy. They know the rhetoric doesn’t match the record” of Democrats on the gun issue, Chris W. Cox, the National Rifle Association’s chief lobbyist, told the Hartford paper.

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