Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The wrong kind of crime-fighter

In his bid to win the GOP presidential nomination, Rudy Giuliani has a big problem. It's true that, as mayor of New York, he was a renowned crime-fighter, and Republican primary voters certainly like a guy who not only has a tough-on-crime image, but also has the tough-on-crime statistics to back up the image. The hitch, however, is that, for Republicans, he's the wrong kind of crime-fighter.

Basically, he says he cut crime by curbing access to guns.

Those latter four words are a no-no. While GOP voters like the idea of cutting crime, they're not so wild about the idea of attaching any caveats to the red-blooded American right to purchase a piece...even though, in the case of New York City, those caveats reportedly did help to cut crime.

This issue surfaced yesterday, when the perpetually teasing Fred Thompson, who plays a crime-fighter on TV, pursued his unofficial candidacy by writing critically on his website about Giuliani's gun-control record. Thompson said: "When I was working in television, I spent quite a bit of time in New York City. There are lots of things about the place I like, but New York gun laws don't fall into that category. Anybody who knows me knows I’ve always cared deeply about the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. So I’ve always felt sort of relieved when I flew back home to where that particular civil liberty gets as much respect as the rest of the Bill of Rights." He also implied that crime is low nationwide because of "historically high gun ownership rates."

This shot across Giuliani's bow is clearly designed to appeal to the Second Amendment enthusiasts who vote heavily in GOP primaries, and who perhaps are unaware that the homicide rate and the rate of shootings both fell precipitously on Giuliani's watch. It'd be wrong to suggest that Giuliani's gun control policies -particularly keeping illegal handguns away from criminals - were solely responsible; a healthy '90s economy helped as well. But Giuliani himself contends on his own website that his policies were instrumental, that as a result of controlling illegal guns, "shootings fell by 72 percent and the murder rate was cut by two-thirds."

The question is whether Giuliani is prepared to tout his New York City record as proof that tougher control of illegal guns can indeed lower the crime rate, and take that message to the GOP primary electorate. Fat chance. Gun-owning voters generally view efforts to curb illegal guns as the first step toward national confiscation of legal guns - which is why Thompson sought to put the squeeze on Giuliani yesterday. And which is why Giuliani's website leaves him wiggle room:

"Rudy understands that what works in New York doesn't necessarily work in Mississippi and Montana."

By the way, this "state's rights" pitch is fairly new; not too long ago, when he had yet to begin pandering to the Republican right, Giuliani was a staunch supporter of federal gun licensing laws that would indeed have applied to places like Mississippi and Montana. But if we take his current stance at face value, here's the question:

If keeping illegal guns away from criminals worked in New York, as he claims, then why wouldn't that policy be worth trying elsewhere, maybe in Mississippi and Montana, or especially in other cities? After all, 240 mayors believe that curbing illegal guns would reduce gun violence. Politically speaking, however, Giuliani won't dare to highlight this issue, especially with Thompson laying the groundwork to outflank him on the right. His viability as a Republican candidate hinges on his ability to edit or erase his own past.