Flash Point on the Road to the White House

They were gleeful over at the Democratic National Committee on July 23. That's when Richard E. Dyke, Maine finance chairman for Texas Governor George W. Bush's Presidential bid, abruptly resigned after reporters began quizzing him about his business dealings. Dyke's company, Bushmaster Firearms Inc., is notorious for using loopholes to sidestep a 1994 federal ban on assault rifles. To avoid a furor, Dyke stepped down.

It was another casualty in the political gun wars. The fuss didn't give much pause to the Bush juggernaut, but it gave Democrats an early chance to use the Texan's gun record as target practice for Campaign 2000. As the public recoils from a new wave of gun violence, tougher gun laws could become a centerpiece of the political debate this election season.

Millions of votes may be in play, especially those of women. In mid-July, more than 60% of women polled by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center said a member of Congress who had voted against gun control didn't deserve reelection. The Pew poll found that voters of nearly all stripes favor gun control: Minorities, college grads, the elderly, and those making more than $75,000 a year are more likely to oppose a pro-gun candidate. Says Pew Director Andrew Kohut: ''The best one can do if one is an opponent of gun control is hope the issue doesn't come up.''

Not a chance. Gore already is exploiting what he sees as a vulnerability in Bush's otherwise unflappable campaign. In May, Gore cast a dramatic tie-breaking vote to pass a Senate measure that would require background checks for people buying weapons at gun shows. On July 12, he followed up with a plan that calls for a three-day waiting period, a ban on ''junk'' guns commonly used in crimes, mandatory trigger locks, stiffer penalties for illegal sales, and a national licensing system.

NARROW LINE. In contrast, Bush has signed bills that make it easier to legally carry concealed weapons and tougher for localities to sue gunmakers. The ''compassionate conservative'' echoes the National Rifle Assn. refrain: Better enforcement of existing laws, not new rules, is the answer to crime. Yet even Bush is quick to boast of gun-control measures he has enacted--including tougher penalties for selling guns to kids--and his support of instant background checks at gun shows.

He's walking a narrow line. To appeal to conservatives in primary states, Bush must stress his pro-gun bona fides. But that could cost him in the general election. Hard-liners already detect some waffling. Larry Pratt, executive director of the ultraconservative Gun Owners of America, fears Bush will wimp out. ''He seems to be trying to avoid definition,'' Pratt fumes.

Pro-gun folks argue that fallout from gun violence can actually cut both ways. After all, NRA membership and donations spiked 20% after the Littleton massacre. And the NRA won a huge victory this spring when the House killed a Clinton proposal to clamp down on gun-show sales.

Still, that win might be the last for a while. On July 30, the House backpedaled from its earlier hard line and told conferees to accept gun-show background checks in talks with the Senate on a final bill. As such, Democrats are convinced that they have found a wedge issue that could help them retain the White House and maybe even regain the House. The GOP worries that they may be right.

By Lorraine Woellert in Washington, with Richard S. Dunham in Austin, Tex.

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