WASHINGTON – With less than a month to the election, the sniper shootings that left five dead in Montgomery County would seem to be perfect political fodder for candidates who back gun control.
But most politicians aren’t biting — for now.
Candidates and gun-control supporters have decided to “put things on hold,” so they will not appear to be capitalizing on the shootings, said Khalid Pitts, state director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
“Because everything is so fresh, and the heightened sensitivity, campaigns are being cautious to show some respect to those who died,” said Pitts, whose group delayed ads in support of 8th District congressional candidate Chris Van Hollen.
But with gun control an especially volatile issue in the gubernatorial race, the shootings may not stay on the back burner for long.
“There’s a golden opportunity for candidates to play on the voters’ fear,” said Montgomery Journal columnist Blair Lee. “This is the No. 1 concern of the voters in Maryland, and politicians can’t resist it.”
One such politician is Van Hollen, a Democrat who “is not shying away from discussing gun safety laws,” according to his campaign manager Steve Jost.
But while Van Hollen will talk about the events that are “a reminder of why we need to do more (for gun control),” he does not plan to create ads or debates revolving around the shooting, said Jost.
His opponent, Rep. Connie Morella, R-Bethesda, devoted her opening statement in a Monday forum to her work to get federal law enforcement officials, including Attorney General John Ashcroft, involved in the case.
“Voters can certainly sense if you’re trying to grandstand or take advantage of a tragedy,” Morella’s campaign director Tony Caligiuri said.
But Morella and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend have run gun-control ads since the shootings — though both ads began days before the attacks and Townsend’s stopped running Sunday. Townsend’s ad was paid for by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Morella’s ad cited her endorsement by Sarah Brady.
Although they were not made with the shootings in mind, the ads have had “incredible emotional impact,” Caligiuri said.
But the shootings are a “negligible” issue in the 8th District race, said WTOP political commentator Mark Plotkin. He said the issue is more important in the governor’s race, where Townsend is seen as much stronger on gun control than her opponent, Republican Robert Ehrlich.
Ehrlich said last Friday that the state has “some of the most restrictive and progressive gun laws in the nation that must be used to track and prosecute these killers” — a statement that brought derision from the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
But the Townsend campaign has yet to respond to Ehrlich’s comments.
“It’s really very simple: There’s a right way to behave at a time like this, and that way is to keep politics out of it,” campaign spokesman Peter Hamm said.
Townsend has to tread carefully, said Plotkin. If she plays up the crimes to attack Ehrlich’s gun control record, he might accuse her of politicizing the issue.
“Any candidate or candidacy that wishes to cross the line and take advantage of a major human tragedy does so at her own risk,” Ehrlich said Wednesday.
The reactions remind Pitts of the response to Sept. 11: It was on constituents’ minds, but politicians did not want to exploit it.
The sniper attacks will have “an impact on the society and on how we feel about the election in November,” said Lillian Pubillones Nolan, president of the Montgomery County chapter of the anti-gun Million Mom March.
But for now, candidates and advocacy groups will have to let the events speak for themselves.
“Everything is so much on hold until this whole thing is sorted out,” Pubillones Nolan said. “Restoring the safety and security of our citizens comes first. Everything else at this point is secondary.”