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NRA's Heston, in Monroeville, fires away at Gore's stance on guns

2,500 National Rifle Association members gather

Thursday, October 19, 2000

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

An hour before the sun rose yesterday, hundreds of National Rifle Association members united for two purposes: They came to praise Charlton Heston and to try to bury Al Gore.

Heston led a raucous rally aimed at defeating Gore in next month's presidential election. He told a crowd of some 2,500 at the Palace Inn in Monroeville that Gore is a duplicitous character who would rob law-abiding citizens of the freedom to own guns.

"If he had the guts of a guppy, he would come out and say what he believes," said Heston, 76, the fabled actor who is in his third term as NRA president.

Instead, Heston said, Democrat Gore has taken a series of conflicting positions on gun ownership, all of them shaped by what was politically expedient at the moment.

Dan Pfeiffer, a spokesman for the Gore campaign in Nashville, Tenn., replied that Heston's claims were unfair and unfounded.

He said Gore has been a consistent proponent of hunters' rights and a stout advocate for taking guns away from criminals.

"This type of polarizing, partisan attack by the NRA diverts attention from the real work that needs to be done to ensure that our schools, streets and neighborhoods are safe places," Pfeiffer said.

Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president, outlined the organization's specific criticisms of Gore for the Monroeville crowd.

LaPierre said Gore consistently supported the gun-ownership rights of individual citizens during his first 12 years as a congressman and U.S. senator from Tennessee. Hunting and firearm ownership were popular enough in the South that Gore used his friendly relationship with the NRA to seek its endorsement in his campaigns. LaPierre said the NRA in those days happily supported Gore in his congressional campaigns.

But, he added, when Gore made his first run for president in 1988, he abruptly switched to an anti-gun position.

"He told us he was doing it to get through the New York primary. It wasn't about principle. It was politics," LaPierre said.

Pfeiffer responded that Gore has clear positions, which he has stuck to over the years.

"Al Gore supports and has always supported the right of hunters and sportsmen to have guns. However, as gun violence has become more prevalent in society, Al Gore has worked for common-sense gun safety legislation to get guns out of the hands of criminals and away from children."

As president, Pfeiffer said, Gore would attempt to "require every handgun buyer to obtain a state-issued photo license after passing a background and safety check."

The NRA sees Pennsylvania, along with Michigan, Illinois and a handful of other states, as keys to the Nov. 7 election between Gore and Republican candidate George W. Bush.

Heston said NRA members, who now exceed 4 million nationally, should forget all issues except the right of gun ownership, as guaranteed by the Second Amendment of the Constitution.

"Focus on freedom. Freedom has never been in greater peril and needed you more to come to her defense," Heston said.

He defended the idea of a one-issue campaign, saying it was used by the revolutionaries who founded America. They focused all their energy on individual freedom and the monarch who was trying to rob them of it, Heston said.

"Instead of fighting the redcoats, we're fighting the blue-blood elitists," he told cheering supporters, many of whom had risen as early as 4 a.m. to travel to the rally.

One of them was Dave Cross of Saxonburg, who drove 75 minutes to get to the 7:30 a.m. rally. He said he fears a Gore presidency for a simple reason.

"I want my constitutional rights protected. I see nothing wrong with law-abiding citizens having guns," Cross said. "I don't like the government telling me what to do, and it's getting more pronounced."

NRA members treated both Heston and LaPierre as celebrities who have immersed themselves in a crucial cause.

Bill Segretti of Penn Hills applauded Heston and waited in a long line to get LaPierre's autograph after the speeches. Segretti said he was a liberal Democrat until 1980, when he was transformed.

"The big reason I changed was freedom," he said. "Republicans trust people. Democrats want to control them."

Many in the audience carried signs aimed squarely at the Democratic candidate. Several said: "Al Gore -- You will never get our guns or our votes."

In Heston, the NRA has an advocate that Democrats cannot easily attack. Heston stood with Martin Luther King Jr. in the famous 1963 march on Washington -- a fact that the NRA highlighted in a short film shown before his speech.

"Being for civil rights then was no more popular than being for gun rights today," Heston said.

He added that he's accustomed to people who preach about free speech trying to limit other people's right to own guns. He said that ought to infuriate everyone, for they stifle discussion and free thought.

In addition to touting ownership rights, Heston and LaPierre accused the Clinton administration of doing little to enforce existing gun laws.

Drug dealers, gang members and felons who attempt to buy guns illegally are rarely prosecuted by the federal government, LaPierre said.

Pfeiffer, of Gore's campaign staff, said progress has been made, even with a Republican Congress fighting appointments of needed judges and prosecutors.

He pointed to Gore's support for hiring 1,000 more gun prosecutors and 500 additional firearms agents as an example of the candidate's interest in making streets safer.

Plus, federal prosecutions of people who commit crimes with firearms are up 16 percent since 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected president and Gore took office as vice president, according to Justice Department statistics culled by the Democratic campaign.

But LaPierre maintained that Gore's efforts after eight years were insubstantial and insincere. His NRA supporters agreed.

"The guy has proven that he's two-faced," said Ken Seybold of Latrobe.

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