"Mark R. Warner, the Democratic nominee for Virginia governor, recast his campaign position on two gun-control issues yesterday as many in his party expressed surprise at learning that he was courting support from the National Rifle Association.
Warner said he would veto any bill to repeal the state's law limiting handgun purchases to one a month. On Thursday, his campaign manager Steve Jarding, declined to say whether Warner would sign such a bill.
And yesterday afternoon, Warner said he would sign a law banning guns from Fairfax County recreation centers. That was a switch from his comments at last weekend's gubernatorial debate and from remarks he made earlier yesterday, in which he expressed doubt over the need for such a law.
Warner, who has a formal meeting scheduled with top NRA officials next month, defended his outreach to the group.
'I look forward to sitting down with the NRA,' Warner said in an interview. 'I doubt if the NRA would endorse me, but I do support the right of folks to hunt and fish. I support the Second Amendment.'
Campaign officials said that by courting the NRA, they may be able to keep the powerful gun-rights group from backing Mark L. Earley, their Republican opponent in the Nov. 6 election. Virginia Republicans have long relied on the group's financial backing and its effective grass-roots organizing.
Just last year, NRA President Charlton Heston stumped through Virginia in a bid to defeat U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb (D), who lost. In 1996, when Warner ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate, he neither met with NRA officials nor filled out their questionnaire on issues, said campaign officials.
Some Northern Virginia Democrats said that Warner was going too far in his outreach to rural voters on what they call common-sense gun-safety issues.
'I think in trying to neutralize the gun issue, he's just added more ammunition,' said state Sen. Leslie L. Byrne (D-Fairfax), who called for gun control in her 1999 election campaign. 'What Mark is teetering on the brink of is alienating moderates in Northern Virginia - Republicans and Democrats.'
Other Democrats said that the overtures to the NRA are politically savvy for a candidate running in a state with so many rural voters who cherish gun rights.
'The NRA is not an organization whose endorsement I would ever want nor would I ever get,' said U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va). 'But I'm not running statewide and Mark is, and [he] respects the full range of ideologies and cultures that make up the commonwealth of Virginia.'
The Democratic nominee for attorney general, Del. A. Donald McEachin (Richmond), did not return phone L messages yesterday seeking comment on Warner's courtship of the NRA. McEachin touted his "F" rating by the NRA in his primary campaign and has become a target for the group.
His campaign spokesman, Steve Vaughan, said he had no comment on Warner and the NRA. Of McEachin, he said: 'He can't be reached for this purpose. ... He has other things to do.'
The dust-up over the NRA began yesterday morning when The Washington Post reported Warner's overtures to the group and quoted Jarding refusing to rule out a repeal to the one-gun-a-month law. He said, 'We won't answer hypothetical questions about what he would do if this gun law or that gun law came across his desk.'
After consulting with Warner, Jarding said later on Thursday night that the candidate does not support repealing the law. And yesterday, Warner said he would veto a bill to repeal it.
On Fairfax County's quest to ban guns in recreation centers, Warner said at last Saturday's debate and again yesterday that Virginia has enough gun laws. In an initial interview yesterday, Warner said he was under the impression, based on an opinion issued by Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) when he was attorney general, that county officials already have the power to enact such a ban.
But later yesterday, after consulting with Fairfax County officials, he said he became convinced that a new law was the only way to keep guns out of recreation centers.
'If this kind of legislation went through, I'd sign it,' Warner said. He added, 'My sense is under the current General Assembly, you're not going to see this kind of law go through.'
Earley campaign spokesman David B. Botkins said that Earley does not believe that a law banning guns from recreation centers is necessary but that he would veto any attempt to repeal Virginia's one-gun-a-month law."
(Craig Timberg & Ann O'Hanlon, The Washington Post, July 21, 2001).