Montana Democrats trying to overcome antigun image

Posted: Thursday, February 21, 2002

BOZEMAN, Montana (AP) -- Montana Democrats are trying to shake the party's antigun image, and some say they're victims of their national party.

They're opening booths at local outdoors shows. They've made the right to bear arms a part of their party platform. And they've endorsed Montanans' right to hunt, fish and recreate on public lands.

''The idea that Democrats are these wild-eyed greenies running around with ponytails and earrings, I kind of resent that, especially in Montana,'' said Rep. Larry Jent, D-Bozeman. ''I think I've got some fairly good gun credentials and it makes me mad as hell.''

Not all voters care about gun laws, but those who do, care deeply, and Jent said they're quick to tell him they've seen his grade-A rating by the National Rifle Association.

Jent said that may be all they know about him, and they also know the National Democratic Party supports tighter gun registration laws, opposes handguns and semiautomatic weapons and worries about concealed weapons.

''The trouble with the national party is that they push that stuff too much at the national convention, and the national party is wrong,'' Jent said. ''They hurt Democrats all over the country, but particularly in the South and the Mountain West,'' Jent said.

''I think what we have to do is not just say we're for the sportsmen. I think we need to break away from the national party on things Montana Democrats disagree with.''

A group of Democrats calling themselves the Montana Hunter and Outdoor Roundtable has organized to bring gun and outdoor issues to the fore in the 2002 elections.

''There were a number of us that have been concerned about election results not only in Montana, but (also) in Western states,'' said Mick McGuire, roundtable chairman. ''In part, Democrats might not have done as well as they could have because of this misperception that they're antigun. I know of no Montana Democrat who is antigun ownership.''

McGuire is an avid hunter, a good union worker with a natural resource job at the local talc plant -- the kind of Montana Democrat the party leaned on in its heyday.

But those natural resource workers have also fallen away from the party, as Democrat positions on environmental issues have often disagreed with industry development.

Democrats in rural states like Montana have been battered for their national party's stances on gun control, Montana Democratic Party Chairman Bob Ream of Helena agreed. But he said Democrats are strong supporters of blue-collar environmental issues.

''I for one have carried lots of pieces of legislation that have benefited sportsmen,'' said Ream, a former legislator from Missoula. ''I carried the stream access bill. We do stand for public access to public lands.''

Gary Marbut of Missoula, head of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, agreed there are pro-gun Democrats, but said it's Republicans who generally get his group's support because Republican legislators have repeatedly supported pro-gun bills.

But it's not a partisan thing, Marbut said. Republican Gov. Judy Martz did not support a bill to stop requiring Social Security numbers on hunting license applications, and MSSA pulled its support of the governor.

''I think what Democrats are waking up to is that this is a very important issue in Montana,'' Marbut said. ''And in politics it is said that while it's important to have numbers on your side, it is critical to have interest and energy on your side.''

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