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Democrats tone down gun-control stance

After years of pushing restrictions, they're on a new quest to capture southern votes.

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When the Justice Department this week declared that it would break with 60 years of precedent and interpret the Second Amendment as guaranteeing the rights of individuals – not just militias – to bear arms, the reaction among Washington Democrats was striking: Most of them avoided the topic altogether.

Just two years ago, gun control seemed to be a winning issue for Democrats. A wave of school shootings had led to calls for tougher legislation, culminating in the Million Mom March on Washington. Many states were suing gun manufacturers. At their national convention, the Democrats called for mandatory safety locks and the licensing of handgun owners.

But these days, most Democrats speaking out on the issue sound like Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia – who spoke of his passion for hunting at the annual conference of the National Rifle Association – while the rest have been notably silent on the subject. There are, of course, exceptions: Sen. Charles Schumer of New York held a press conference decrying the new interpretation of the right to bear arms.

Yet legislative activity has been meager; in fact, there's been more action on the antirestriction front, particularly in the states.

The drive for rural votes

Driving this shift is a realization among Democrats that they must do better in rural areas if they are to win control of Congress this fall, or the White House in 2004. Indeed, this year's battle for Congress could come down to a handful of rural districts in the Rocky Mountain West and the South. Democrats' top targets include seats in Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Georgia – areas where hunting is a way of life, and gun control is anathema.

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