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Campus killings have little political impact

The tragedy at Virginia Tech has done little if anything to change candidates' positions on gun control.

breinhard@MiamiHerald.com

In his first trip to Florida as a presidential candidate, Republican Mitt Romney went to a gun show.

The former governor of Massachusetts chatted up corporate executives and mom-and-pop dealers in Orlando at the gun industry's annual trade exhibition, the largest showcase in the world for weapons ranging from black-powder muskets to semiautomatic rifles.

But when 32 Virginia Tech students and teachers were slain last month, gun control advocates hoped the tragedy would inspire politicians -- including those on the presidential hustings -- to embrace their cause.

It didn't. While expressing condolences, Republican candidates largely affirmed their support for gun rights. Democrats, who have called for crackdowns after mass shootings in the past, were largely mum.

''It looks like the Democrats don't want to talk about guns, and I didn't expect the Republicans to,'' said Art Hayhoe of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. ``Such a horrific event passes and nothing is put forward?''

Campaigning in Tallahassee, Romney said: ``There are those people in this country who want very badly to remove the right of citizens to bear arms, and they look for any occasion to try and promote that agenda. I believe very strongly that's wrong.''

In Florida, talking about gun control is as taboo as proposing an income tax or a ban on capital punishment.

The NRA gave at least $443,875 over the past decade to Florida candidates and the GOP, which dominates state government.

The state's latest grade from the national Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence: an ''F-plus,'' downgraded one notch after Gov. Jeb Bush in 2005 signed a ''shoot-first'' law that allows deadly force against attackers in public places.

RURAL COMMUNITIES

While urban, violence-prone areas like South Florida tend to favor gun restrictions, rural and small-town communities to the north hold tight to their weapons.

''Florida is a state where people feel strongly about freedom,'' said Marion Hammer, a longtime NRA lobbyist in Tallahassee.

When Charlie Crist was running for governor last year, campaign staffers got firearms training so they could work the gun-show crowds around the state. One of Florida's best-known firearms instructors, Bill Bunting, said he kept Crist's rival for governor, Tom Gallagher, out of the gun-show circuit because he supported an assault-weapons ban years ago.

This year, campaign staff for Romney and John McCain signed up for Bunting's firearms class.

''We have more than 415,000 people with concealed carry permits in Florida,'' said Bunting, who also serves as Pasco County GOP chairman. ``Is that a voting bloc?''

No wonder some Republicans are retreating from previous positions on gun control.

As governor of Massachusetts, Romney signed a law that permanently banned assault weapons.

But as he geared up for his presidential bid last year, Romney joined the NRA. He described himself as a lifelong hunter, though he later admitted he had gone only twice.

TRIGGER LOCKS

When he was mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani pushed for gun licenses, trigger locks and a far-reaching lawsuit against two dozen gun manufacturers.

His presidential website now says: ``Rudy understands that what works in New York doesn't necessarily work in Mississippi or Montana.''

Unlike Giuliani, McCain opposed the Brady bill that outlawed certain assault weapons and required a waiting period for handgun buyers. The Arizona senator has also voted to protect the gun industry from civil lawsuits.

Though gun control legislation typically comes from Democrats, party leaders are not clamoring for new restrictions.

Democrats owe some of their newfound power in Congress to conservative members of their party such as Rep. Tim Mahoney, a West Palm Beach rancher who ran campaign commercials that showed him firing a gun.

SENATE CAMPAIGN

Hillary Clinton made gun control a key issue of her 2000 Senate campaign but made no similar call after Virginia Tech. Sen. Barack Obama said in a radio interview that he supports making it tougher for the mentally ill to own guns, but added, ``I'm respectful of people who want to hunt or sportsmen, somebody who might want to have a gun in the house to protect their home.''

John Edwards backed his party's gun-control efforts when he represented North Carolina in the Senate, but his campaign, too, distanced itself from calls for reform.

During a televised debate, five of the eight Democrats raised their hands when asked whether they ever had a gun in their home -- Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska, and one of the most liberal members of Congress, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio.

Miami Herald staff writer Gary Fineout contributed to this report.