Bush & Guns: The Art of the Double Deal

How the GOP presidential candidate pretends he's a reformer — and still backs the NRA's agenda

George W. Bush Credit: Harry Hamburg/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

George W. Bush of Texas, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, has a double-barreled problem. His enemies are having an easy time branding him a lackey of the National Rifle Association. And his friends are helping them. At precisely the moment that Al Gore was hammering Bush for signing several NRA-supported bills as governor, a videotape surfaced of a senior NRA official telling a roomful of gun activists that the NRA would be able to "work out of [his] office" if Bush wins the White House. Bush was forced to declare that, no, the NRA would not operate out of the Oval Office — which somehow only made things worse.

The Bush camp seems confused by the brouhaha. Guns are usually an issue in Texas only when someone suggests restricting them. Bush drove Ann Richards out of the governor's mansion in 1994 partly on a promise to let Texans carry concealed handguns, a bill that Richards had vetoed the year before. Since then, Bush has pretty much walked the NRA line. Two years after signing the concealed-handgun bill, he made it legal to carry guns into churches, hospitals and amusement parks. He also signed a law barring Texas cities from suing gun manufacturers for the damage their products do — something thirty-one local governments in other states have done. When gun-control bills are introduced in the Texas legislature — to require trigger locks, say, or background checks at gun shows — the governor stands mute and lets them die.

Texas has long been a state that has vexed gun-control advocates. It is very close to being the most gun-friendly state in the country, according to ratings compiled by Handgun Control Inc., which gave it a D-minus. (It missed an F because its laws hold adults responsible if children get access to loaded weapons.) The whole country suffers as a result of the gun laws in Texas, reports a study by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). He found that nearly a quarter of the guns used in crimes committed nationwide in 1999 came from four states – Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas. "These states are habitual bad actors," said Schumer. "The shame of it is that lax gun laws in one state translate into murder and mayhem in another."

While Vice President Gore has essentially written off the NRA and backs tough gun-control measures — requiring trigger locks as well as photo-ID licenses for gun owners, limiting buyers to one gun a month and a ban on Saturday night specials — the gun issue is much trickier for candidate Bush. "He's still getting used to the idea that he's not running in Texas," says Clay Robison of the Houston Chronicle, who has been covering Texas politics for twenty-nine years.

If Bush is too soft on guns, he risks looking like a gun-lobby lap dog. On the other hand, if he moderates his position, he risks the wrath of the NRA and its highly motivated 3.5 million members. It's not a comfortable place to be. In general, when a gun-related bill crosses Gov. Bush's desk, he does what the NRA wants him to do. But on issues that don't reach his desk, he takes a position that sounds pro-gun control. You'd have to be following the issue closely to catch the distinctions.

Which is exactly what Bush is counting on. The gun issue is like the abortion issue; most of the country favors stricter gun control, just as most Americans favor protecting abortion rights. In both cases, though, well-organized minorities, focused on a single issue, are able to punish candidates who cross them. Bush knows that the NRA and its supporters, for whom gun issues are paramount, will be watching him closely, and he counts on the rest of America to be distracted by what he says.

That is why the faux pas committed by NRA first vice president Kayne Robinson in February was so damaging to Bush. Addressing a California NRA meeting, Robinson said, "If we win, we'll have a president ... where we'll work out of their office." A video clip of the speech surfaced in May, made the evening news and morphed, in the hands of Handgun Control, into a searing anti-Bush TV ad. Not only did Robinson not need to tell a roomful of NRA faithful such a thing, articulating it so that the general public could hear was devastating. His premature gloating tore the mask of moderation off Bush's candidacy and made plain the discrepancy between the Texas governor's words and his actions.

State Rep. Debra Danburg, like most Texas pols, took it as a matter of faith for most of her career that the National Rifle Association ruled Texas. But she didn't really wake up to the extent of the NRA's power or the marvel of Bush's skill until one spring morning last year.

Danburg serves a wealthy, artsy, heavily gay district of central Houston. She'd been trying for months to close the "gun-show loophole" and require background checks for sales at gun shows. She knew it would be a tough sell to the legislature, and it was obvious the governor had no interest in helping.

On the afternoon of April 20th, 1999, Danburg realized she didn't have enough support to get her bill through the House Public Safety Committee. So she asked the chairman, fellow Democrat Bob Turner, to delay a vote on it, and he agreed. This is a common parliamentary courtesy in Texas: Committee chairs avoid embarrassing fellow legislators by sparing them public defeats. Comfortable that her bill would live to fight another day, she went home to bed without turning on the news.

The next morning, she discovered that while she was counting her votes, two teenagers named Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris had been slaughtering twelve students, a teacher and themselves at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, with weapons bought, it turned out, at a gun show. Then she learned that at midnight — even before all the bodies had been removed from the shattered school-house — committee chair Turner had brought her gun-show bill to a vote, where it predictably failed by a wide margin. In the same late-night session, during which NRA lobbyist Tara Reilly Mica testified twice, the committee also voted the NRA's way on two other gun-related measures.

Danburg was awed at the agility and power of the Texas lobby. "The gun groups were afraid their bills would die everywhere after Columbine and that mountains of gun-control measures would pass," Danburg says. "In Texas, they thought they had enough votes that night, so they pushed the chairman to hold the vote right then, even though he had told me he wouldn't."

Turner's office says it was a "misunderstanding," to which Danburg replies — now that parliamentary courtesy has been dropped — "Bullshit."

Gov. Bush then entered the fray with the kind of rakish, offhand leaps of logic that made his father famous. Bush held a press conference the morning after Turner's roll call to comment on the Columbine killings. "I think people ought not to go to movies that are violent," he said. A reporter asked him about background checks at gun shows. "I believe in instant background checks," Bush said.

Danburg was stunned. She immediately called Bush's office and was scheduled for a meeting with the governor that same week. She and a Senate ally showed up promptly in a capitol conference room for the promised chat, but Bush didn't show. A brusque aide finally told them Bush wasn't coming. The staff had found "flaws" in Danburg's bill. Danburg offered to change the bill any way they liked, as long as it provided for background checks at gun shows.

"They never got back to us," she says of the governor's staff. "And they stopped returning our calls."

The result: Bush is officially on the record as a supporter of background checks at gun shows, but he hasn't crossed the NRA by actually doing anything about it. As Danburg puts it, "He's talking out of both sides of his mouth."

Observers of Texas politics call the incident classic Bush. Whether his agility on the gun issue makes him smart or slippery depends on your perspective and how closely you're paying attention. Bush's campaign Web site says the governor supports the current ban on automatic weapons, but private ownership of automatic weapons has been federally banned since 1934. What isn't clear is whether as president he would push to extend the newer federal ban on semiautomatic assault weapons when it phases out in 2004. Bush claims to support a ban on the possession of assault weapons by teenagers, a ban on high-capacity magazines and an increase in the minimum age for owning a handgun — from eighteen to twenty-one. But none of these proposals has ever been at issue in Texas, and Bush never worked to get them on the agenda. Not mentioned on the campaign website are the issues on which Gov. Bush did take a stand — allowing concealed-handgun permits and indemnifying gun makers.

Bush justifies those positions as narrow disagreements over jurisdiction. Background checks are a good idea, he says, but because federal law created the gun-show loophole, federal law ought to correct it. That's why he didn't back Danburg's bill, says his spokesman Scott McClellan. As for suits against gun makers, Bush thinks those complaints are better brought by state governments, not cities, McClellan says. Furthermore, McClellan argues, it's not for the governor to question why the independently elected attorney general of Texas, John Cornyn, hasn't filed such a suit.

Would President Bush direct the attorney general of the United States to sue the gun makers for safer firearms? "He does not support a federal law that would override what states have passed and is not familiar with the specifics of any legislation," McClellan says opaquely.

Bush passed up two opportunities in the last legislative session to back laws requiring the sale of trigger locks with handguns and ridiculed the idea during a primary-season debate. Then, two days before the popular anti-gun Million Mom March in early May, Bush announced that the state would give a free trigger lock to any Texan who wanted one. Bush thus managed to appear in favor of trigger locks while pleasing the NRA by refusing to mandate them.

This year — for the first time since the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy — gun control is a center-stage national issue, and the tide is ebbing away from the NRA. The Million Mom March put an estimated 750,000 anti-gun activists on the Washington, D.C., Mall and thousands more in plazas around the country. Many marchers told interviewers it was Columbine that had motivated them to get involved.

Nobody has to tell the NRA how Columbine changed the political landscape. The group is spending $30 million on media campaigns. In the past twelve months, the ad blitz has helped boost NRA membership twenty percent.

"What Bush is hoping is that the single-issue voter will vote for him in a bloc and also walk precincts, stuff envelopes, man phone trees," says Joe Sudbay, political director for Handgun Control. "They're calculating that people on our side aren't as passionate. I think that's a miscalculation."

The current surge of public enthusiasm seems to run deeper than simple outrage over the Columbine shootings. Two weeks before the massacre, the NRA tried to make an end run around the Missouri legislature and pass a ballot initiative to allow concealed handguns. This was the first time the NRA had tried to pass a concealed-handgun law by initiative, and the group spent $3.7 million on the campaign — four times as much as the opposition. But the initiative failed, and the way it failed may illuminate the future of gun politics.

It turns out that voters approved concealed weapons in all but eleven of Missouri's 115 counties, and those eleven were in heavily populated St. Louis and Kansas City. In St. Louis alone, seventy-four percent voted no. The United States is becoming more urbanized every year, and urban Americans like those in St. Louis are becoming more insistent on gun control. These two trends bode ill for the NRA and its supporters. "The shootings have not created a transitory and unreflective bubble," wrote Tom Smith, who surveys public opinion for the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center. "Rather, [the shootings] have revealed that a public consensus already exists to deal with the problem."

But just as the death of basketball star Len Bias ratcheted up the drug war, the Columbine shootings boosted the public's appetite for gun-control measures. In the months that followed Columbine, about a dozen states either backed away from NRA-supported liberalizations of gun laws or passed new gun-control measures — precisely what the Texas legislature pre-empted, to Debra Danburg's disgust. In at least five states — Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Ohio and Utah — Republican governors, whom the NRA had supported in their campaigns, either vetoed NRA-backed concealed-handgun bills or pushed for gun-control bills that the NRA opposed. Then thirty-one municipalities filed suit against gun manufacturers and distributors, and the nation's biggest handgun maker, Smith & Wesson, broke ranks and signed a deal with the Clinton administration to make safer guns. A raft of polls since Columbine shows strong support for tougher gun laws, even in such traditionally pro-gun states as Colorado, Georgia — and Texas.

This is the environment in which George W. Bush finds himself running for president. Whether his two-step on gun control plays as well in Los Angeles and Baltimore as it does in Lufkin and Beaumont remains to be seen. The answer will be clear by deer season.