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Democrats Who Defected in Gun Vote

June 18, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Most of the 45 House Democrats who bucked their party by voting to loosen background checks at gun shows hail from districts with lots of hunters or other conservative voters.

They’re much more likely than other Democrats to have received donations from the National Rifle Association. And some had to stave off strong Republican challenges last fall.

``Democrats are reflecting, in many of these cases, their constituents and their districts,″ said Democratic political consultant Peter Fenn.

The bill that carried the divisive amendment ultimately failed in the House on Friday, but the battle over the amendment suggests that many Democrats learned a lesson from the 1994 election.

That year, the NRA and other gun groups helped the GOP capture the House for the first time in 40 years in part by hammering Democrats for votes to ban assault-style firearms and to give authorities up to five days to check backgrounds on those seeking to buy handguns.

At the same time, 37 of the 45 Democrats who defected on the gun show amendment later voted with their party to defeat the larger bill, which Democratic leaders said didn’t go far enough to control guns.

The 45 party defectors were led by Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, who sponsored the amendment that would have loosened some existing restrictions on firearms sales at gun shows. An avid hunter and former NRA board member, Dingell once described agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms as ``jackbooted American fascists.″

Although Dingell’s district is mostly suburbs south of Detroit, hunting is popular throughout the state.

Most of the Democratic defectors regularly oppose gun control measures.

Among the dissenters were most of the House’s ``blue dog″ group of conservative Democrats, including four of the five Democrats who voted to impeach President Clinton last December: Reps. Charles Stenholm and Ralph Hall of Texas, Virgil Goode of Virginia and Gene Taylor of Mississippi. The fifth, Paul McHale of Pennsylvania, did not seek re-election in November.

``Those of us in the South and in Texas, especially in rural areas, have a different perspective than those of us that come, for example, from urban areas in the Northeast,″ said Rep. Max Sandlin, D-Texas, who supported the Dingell amendment. ``We see it as a heritage, a connection to family history.″

But it’s not just regional. In addition to Dingell, from Michigan, the defectors included Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, who earned a 95 percent approval rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action in 1998. Obey, who represents Wisconsin’s most rural district, also voted against the ``Brady bill″ background checks on handgun buyers in 1993 and the assault-style firearms ban in 1994. He voted for an unsuccessful GOP attempt to repeal that ban in 1996.

Only one Democrat who supported the NRA-backed amendment, Rep. James Traficant of Ohio, voted to keep the assault-style firearms ban in 1996.

The Democratic defectors include many in competitive districts, such as Reps. Leonard Boswell of Iowa and Ted Strickland of Ohio, as well as freshmen Ken Lucas of Kentucky and Ronnie Shows of Mississippi.

The NRA has been generous to congressional campaigns. In the last election, its political action committee gave $1.6 million, 13th highest among all PACs, and the NRA spent more than $1 million on its own efforts to support or oppose particular congressional candidates.

Of the 31 Democrats who received NRA contributions in the last two years, 30 supported the gun show amendment.

The only Democratic holdout was Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, an NRA member and former state trooper who normally backs gun owners.

``If you’re going to have a check system, then it has to apply equally to everybody,″ said Stupak, who got $6,450 from the NRA. ``If you buy a gun, whether you buy it down the street or at a gun show, you’re subject to the same law. I think that’s fair. I’m not restricting anybody’s rights.″

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