The Rabbit Hunter.

The Rabbit Hunter.

The Rabbit Hunter.

Notes from the political sidelines.
April 6 2007 2:23 PM

The Rabbit Hunter

How Mitt Romney took Republicans' guns away.


Friday, Apr. 6, 2007

Disarmament: If you had to pick the issue most responsible for the two most consequential Republican victories of the last two decades—1994 and 2000—it might well be guns. In 1994, many Democrats lost their seats for supporting an assault weapons ban. In the 2000 primaries, Bill Bradley made gun control a central issue, and Al Gore paid the price that fall: The gun-owning half of the electorate supported Bush 61-39; households without guns went for Gore 58-39.


Although Democrats shied away from the gun issue in 2004, it still cost them. Twelve days before the election, John Kerry went goose hunting in Ohio, which the press dismissed as a desperate photo op. The same day, Dick Cheney called Kerry's new camouflage jacket "an October disguise" and told Ohio voters that "the Second Amendment is more than just a photo opportunity." Ohio gave Republicans the election—and Harry Whittington learned Cheney was willing to put his muzzle where his mouth was.

In 2008, Republicans may finally run out of ammo. By electing a Republican administration that once promised it a desk in the Oval Office, the NRA took guns off the agenda—which also made the group's scare tactics less credible than ever. During their time in the Senate, the Democratic front-runners have cast precious few votes on gun issues.

Meanwhile, the sharp drop in violent crime in the last decade and the absence of a Washington gun debate in this one have largely taken gun policy off the front pages. Of late, the courts are the only ones making gun headlines. If the Supreme Court eventually agrees with the D.C. Circuit that Washington's handgun ban is unconstitutional, the NRA might win the battle but lose the war. It could become a lot harder to block crime-fighting measures like closing the gun show loophole if the NRA can no longer convince anyone that the Second Amendment is under siege.

But Republicans' biggest problem in making this a wedge issue in 2008 is that when it comes to guns, their likely nominees are not as in-your-face as Cheney. John McCain has spent his life around guns but has worked valiantly to try to stop criminal purchases at gun shows. In 1994, Rudy Giuliani bravely spoke out in favor of the assault weapons ban. So far, he hasn't changed his story to claim it was part of a secret plan to elect a Republican Congress.

This week, Mitt Romney may have cooked his own goose by insisting that going hunting twice in his life makes him a "lifelong hunter." If Romney believes that, there's a camouflage jacket in Ohio that John Kerry would like to sell him.

Romney's two hunting trips were 44 years apart—with cousins in Idaho at age 15, and with Republican governors last year at 59. At that pace, his aim must already be pretty bad now— but stay away from his next outing at age 103.

His campaign made matters worse by touting Romney's NRA membership. It turns out he has been a lifelong member since he joined last year.

Like so many hunting stories, Romney's keeps getting better. Yesterday, he told Republicans in Indianapolis that he has gone hunting on other occasions, just not for big game. "I'm not a big-game hunter," the Indianapolis Star quoted him saying. "I've always been a rodent and rabbit hunter. ... Small animals and varmints."