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Why the gun owner vote didn't
do enough for Casey in Pennsylvania

by Andy Barniskis

May 23, 2002

"After years of Pennsylvania's gun owners selling their votes cheaply, a 'pro-gun' candidate thought they could be had for nothing."

For many gun owners, the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial race in Pennsylvania's primary election appeared to be a pivotal face-off between the forces of good and evil. On one hand was former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, a strident supporter of gun control in all its forms, and the author of the strategy intended to bankrupt gun manufacturers by having cities file multiple, frivolous liability suits against them. On the other hand was state Auditor General Robert P. Casey Jr., making comforting promises of "no new gun laws" and "enforcing the laws we already have." 

For the casual observer, the choice appeared clear. However, it was barely an hour after the polls closed that it became obvious that Casey would go down to defeat, and by 11:00 PM of election night the final percentages had stabilized at 56 percent of the vote going to Rendell, and 44 percent to Casey. Casey's big loss came after a massive, last minute effort by the NRA and many of the state's better-organized gun and sportsmen's groups to support him, with mailings to their members and with radio and print ads.

As I write this, I am expecting soon to hear Rendell's victory crowed about as a "massive defeat for the gun lobby," and superficially that would appear to be true. But is it? I think the answer depends on how you analyze the situation -- not to mention who is defined as "the gun lobby." It is an extremely important analysis for those of us concerned about the future tactics and strategies of the gun rights movement.

To begin with completely conventional, mainstream political analysis, it is doubtful how many motivated gun rights votes were available, to be mined for a Democratic primary campaign. The keyword is "motivated." Despite Pennsylvania's reputation of being equally a gun-owning and union-joining state, and the fact that there are no doubt many hard core gun rights advocates who are registered Democrats for a variety of pragmatic personal or professional reasons, the vast majority of voters likely to pull a voting lever over gun rights alone have probably been lured to the Republican Party after years of that party's comforting (if mostly empty) pro-gun posturing, played against the Democrats' strident anti-gun rhetoric. Few intra-party Democratic campaigns are likely to find a huge percentage of voters who will provide knee-jerk, pro-gun votes to the exclusion of all other issues, and the Casey campaign failed to inspire gun rights voters registered in other parties, or independent voters, to switch parties just so they could vote for him.

The Rendell campaign concentrated successfully on turning out the Philadelphia vote, which sometimes, by itself, is sufficient to carry a statewide candidate to victory. One need only envision the image of traditionally political inner city church congregations, whipped into a lather by pulpit-politicians invoking the drug trade and its resulting drive-by shootings, to realize there are few pro-gun votes to be gotten from that Democratic community. Like many other states, Pennsylvania suffers from the phenomenon of its biggest city being the tail that wags the dog of the state.

Despite these considerations, it is within the realm of gun rights politics that the analysis becomes more interesting. Had only six percent of Democratic voters changed their votes, the outcome would have been different, so any percentage of a pro-gun Democratic vote as was to be had was priceless, and there is little doubt some of that vote was lost. We will never know how much, but we may be sure it was a factor.

An important question is, what did pro-gun campaigners have available to tell gun owners, that they didn't already know? Almost everyone attuned to gun rights issues had already heard of Ed Rendell's multiple, public attacks on gun ownership and firearms manufacturers, all of which were well documented and publicized in the mainstream media, as well as by NRA publications and other gun rights and sportsmen's information outlets. Broadly speaking, the only information that the rank-and-file could have missed was Bob Casey's somewhat muted and ambiguous assertions that he would support "no new gun laws." On election day that proved insufficient, even after it had been widely trumpeted.

Why the "no new gun laws" message would fail to resonate with Pennsylvania gun owners may be explainable by recent history. In 1994, the year of the so-called "Republican Revolution," a coalition of county and local gun groups across the state had combined to oppose Republican congressman Tom Ridge's candidacy for governor, because of his anti-gun votes in the U.S. House of Representatives. The coalition was undermined and overpowered by the NRA, who supported Ridge strongly, based only upon promises similar to the now-shopworn "no new gun laws" promise. Ridge was elected governor, and his thanks to the sportsmen was a Republican sponsored "Special Session on Crime" in the state General Assembly. Partly at Ridge's insistence, the mostly anti-civil-liberties package included a comprehensive gun control package, the first to be put forth in Pennsylvania in many years. But, dubbed "The Sportsmen's Omnibus Anti-Crime Bill," and endorsed by both the NRA and HCI, it sailed to passage as the infamous Act 17 of 1995. Attorney General Mike Fisher - who will be the state's Republican gubernatorial candidate this November - also wooed the gun rights vote in 1994, then bitterly opposed even the smallest reforms to the Republican gun control package. 

After eight years of Ridge's Republican administration, "no new gun laws" came to be understood by anyone in Pennsylvania who was paying attention, to mean "gun control laws will be called anti-crime laws." Nevertheless, with Clintonista bogeymen to point to, who were promising worse things yet, Pennsylvania gun rights voters mostly lined up dutifully to deliver wins to Republican candidates who promised little and then delivered less, or worse than less. Gun rights voters came to be recognized for the suckers they were.

While this started primarily as a Republican phenomenon, the concept of promising nothing and being rewarded for it was readily transferable to Democratic candidates, and anyone truly motivated by firearms issues today recognizes "no new gun laws" and "enforcing existing gun laws" as code for taking the Fifth on which anti-gun laws a candidate is willing to support. Thus, Democrat Casey's statement of those positions when he kicked off his campaign early this year did little to encourage truly dedicated gun rights activists and opinion leaders. His credentials were also regarded as suspect because of his heritage. As governor, his father, the late Robert P. Casey Sr., had advocated strict gun control laws, including one that would have defined a .25 ACP pocket pistol as an "assault weapon." Many wondered how far from the tree an apple could fall.

Little that Casey did during his campaign helped to assuage suspicions regarding his sincerity about gun rights. From the very first, he demonstrated a desire to stand a bit distant from many gun rights groups, except for those he thought he absolutely had to accommodate, or those that he thought would serve his purposes while asking no hard or non-negotiable questions. This was demonstrated when our county group sent him a letter early in his campaign, stating forthrightly that we had had bad experiences with candidates making vague or ambiguous promises to us in the past, and that we would like to give him an opportunity to clarify his positions on several issues. The letter went unanswered. Later, we learned that Gun Owners of America had sent their candidate's survey to Casey, and that too went unanswered. Credible sources reported efforts in both Republican and Democratic camps to boycott Gun Owners of America, and other groups associated with them, who might be expected to be uncompromising in their pro-gun positions. Organized or not, it was clear the Casey Campaign supported such a boycott.

Even many gun rights advocates might argue that in the real world of politics, it would make sense for a candidate who supported a controversial position to minimize his public exposure on that issue, and that to do so wouldn't necessarily indicate insincerity. However, in Casey's case it was interesting to observe that he made public commitments to positions that would be unpopular with the voting public, but were supported by organizations that he respected politically. For example, he committed himself to "30 years and out" retirement for teachers, even though Pennsylvanians are presently enraged over soaring school taxes, brought about by legislative mismanagement of the state public employees retirement fund. One would have to conclude that Casey held no personal respect for gun rights advocates as a political force, or he would have promised something publicly and stood by it.

Casey's standoffishness with gun owners continued until approximately ten days before election day. At that time I received a call from an associate in one of the state's more active gun rights groups, advising me to expect a call from a highly-placed Democratic operative in the Casey camp. My associate briefly described how gun rights groups were being recruited to mount a last-minute campaign for Casey for Governor, and discussed some logistics for how we could accomplish it.

The power of the "greater bogeyman" threat is not to be underestimated. Despite my own reservations about the sincerity of Casey's friendship, inundation with repeated reminders of Rendell's enmity toward gun owners inspired me to be initially enthusiastic about the idea of an active campaign effort - against Rendell, more than for Casey. But, when I quickly made the few phone calls necessary to seek organizational approval for undertaking such a campaign, I immediately was brought back to earth with reminders of Casey's failure to answer our mail. What message would we be sending about gun owners as voters, if we allowed our questions to be dodged by a candidate, and then enthusiastically jumped on his bandwagon upon mere invitation to do so? When the Democratic operative called, I stated that we had to decline participation in the effort, at which point he practically hung up on me. I had to force him to take ten seconds to hear why we would not participate, but he didn't care - if we weren't immediately useful to the campaign, we didn't exist, and neither did our concerns.

During the next week, the Casey Campaign's desire to stand at a distance from certain gun rights groups appeared to fade, at least in terms of who they wished to identify as supporting their campaign. A much-forwarded email message went around that included references to an endorsement and A-rating of the Democratic candidate by Gun Owners of America. From the heading on the message it was traceable to a high-level Democratic operative, and while some expressed the opinion it was a "mistake," it nonetheless was a mistake that required clarification in GOA's timely release of their survey results, which included a specific statement that neither Democratic candidate had responded, and therefore they weren't supporting anyone.

The campaign efforts put out on Casey's behalf by the participating groups were sincere and energetic, but from what samples I saw, uninspired. All seemed to have little to say for Casey, beyond the no-new-laws mantra, and seemed to focus more on how much we should be against Ed Rendell. A good deal of money was wasted on such messages in paid ads in the print media, which many recognize as an inefficient and ineffective campaign medium. Despite their stated support for Casey, it appears the NRA confined itself to radio ads on his behalf. I waited to receive their familiar blaze-orange get-out-the-vote postcard, but none was forthcoming.

I think the Casey pro-gun campaign could best be summarized as failing to excite anyone except its participants, and that alone could explain its failure. It was too little, and as a result of the candidate's apparent desire to maintain a safe distance from gun groups until the last minute, came much too late. Despite circulated rumors of "promises" of things to come in return for gun owner support, any such promises were treated as deep, dark secrets to be concealed from the public, and not to be used to inspire support from the rank-and-file. The stale "no new laws, enforce existing laws first" message rang hollow. After years of Pennsylvania's gun owners selling their votes cheaply, a 'pro-gun' candidate thought they could be had for nothing. Even many gun rights activists were surprised to learn that isn't always true.

Andy Barniskis is Legislative Chairman for the Bucks County Sportsmen's Coalition in Southeastern Pennsylvania.