By JOHN LYON
Arkansas News Bureau
LITTLE ROCK — As election season gears up in Arkansas, candidates are bringing out their big guns — literally, in some cases.
The one campaign issue in Arkansas that tends to unite even the fiercest political rivals is support for gun rights, which is seen as a key credentialing tool for office-seekers at all levels in the Natural State.
Last week, 4th District congressional candidate Beth Ann Rankin announced on a radio show and in a campaign news release that she was "a proud gun owner" and the new holder of a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
"The government will never disarm the 4th District of Arkansas," The Republican contender declared in the release.
Fellow 4th District GOP candidate Tom Cotton, an Army Reservist who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, states on his campaign website, "I will always fight outrageous United Nations’ efforts to undermine Americans’ Second Amendment rights," and Cotton’s Facebook page features a photo of him holding a military rifle.
U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, who is seeking re-election to the 1st District seat, issued a release last week trumpeting his vote for a bill to allow people with state-issued concealed-carry permits to carry concealed handguns in any state that allows the carrying of concealed firearms.
"Crawford votes to protect gun owners’ rights," read the headline of the release.
Last spring, Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, who is seeking re-election to the 2nd District seat, and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, who is widely expected to run for governor in 2014, stopped by the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service to shake hands with National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre after LaPierre gave a lecture at the school.
"I’m at your service," McDaniel told LaPierre.
No elected officials were in evidence when Dennis Henigan, acting president of the Brady Campaign and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, spoke at the Clinton School on Nov. 4 in support of gun control.
Griffin’s campaign website describes him as "a soldier, gun owner and 10+ year member of the National Rifle Association."
McDaniel, a former Jonesboro police officer, has often touted his support of gun rights. In 2008 and 2009 he joined several other attorneys general in filing briefs asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn gun-control laws in Washington, D.C., and Chicago. He also has been photographed wearing hunting gear and holding a hunting rifle.
"McDaniel defends Arkansans’ Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms," read the headline of a news release issued by McDaniel’s office in 2009.
If McDaniel runs for governor, he could be in a Democratic primary with Mike Ross, who announced in July that he would not seek re-election to the 4th District seat because he was considering a gubernatorial bid.
Ross’ website states, "As a life member of the National Rifle Association and as congressman for Arkansas’s 4th Congressional District, I will continue to lead the fight to oppose any and all efforts in Washington that restrict our right to own and bear arms."
To name a politician from Arkansas who has taken a stand for gun control, it may be necessary to go back to Bill Clinton, who as president signed an assault weapons ban into law in 1994.
"And he didn’t do it as an Arkansan," said Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College in Conway. "When he was running in Arkansas politics, he was always very careful on these cultural issues to be moderate."
In a state that passed a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a right to hunt and fish, and with nary a candidate in sight endorsing gun control, is talking about gun rights an effective way to distinguish oneself as a candidate?
"It’s unclear how much it moves voters, because in most cases the candidates tend to be on the same side," Barth said.
But he said Arkansas candidates have found effective ways to use the issue.
"It tends not to divide candidates, but it becomes a credentialing device, especially in primaries, and a moderating device for Democrats," Barth said.
He said that McDaniel, for instance, moderates fairly progressive positions on economic issues with more conservative stands on cultural issues such as gun rights. Gov. Mike Beebe does the same, he said.
One Arkansas politician who apparently thought he could use the gun rights issue to distinguish himself from his opponent was former House Speaker Robbie Wills. During last year’s 2nd District Democratic primary, Wills’ campaign issued a mailer asserting that state Sen. Joyce Elliott had "opposed and fought against our Arkansas tradition of hunting and Second Amendment rights," among other claims.
Elliott countered that her views on gun rights were the same as those of the Christian conservative Family Council. Wills was widely criticized for the mailer, and he went on to lose the nomination to Elliott, who lost to Griffin in the general election.
"It was such a mistake," Barth said. "It was a classic run to the right in a Democratic primary. It (was) goofy."