If he were running for governor of New York, Democrat Bill White would probably be considered a pro-gun enthusiast. He's got a shotgun and a 9 mm pistol, opposes any new laws on firearms and says he'd like to sign up some day for a concealed weapons permit.
But this is Texas, where incumbent Rick Perry recently shot a coyote while out jogging and enjoys hunting deer with a bow and arrow. The love of weaponry is so ingrained in state culture that having a legal permit to carry a handgun will get you waved through the Texas Capitol security lines without going through a magnetometer.
Against that backdrop, the former Houston mayor heads into the 2010 governor's race playing defense on a powerful political issue. The biggest liability for White is his past membership in a New York-based gun control group. White says he resigned after finding its positions too restrictive, but his participation in Mayors Against Illegal Guns riled up those who live to preserve Texas' pro-gun culture.
"Anywhere in the civilized world you would be able to make the argument that everybody should be able to be against illegal guns. But we're not in the civilized word. We're in Texas," said Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson.
White only needs to look a few years back to find candidates who have lost campaigns over the issue. The last Democrat who was elected governor, Ann Richards, lost her re-election bid in 1994 in part after opposing concealed handgun legislation and vetoing a referendum on it.
George W. Bush signed the bill into law in his first year after defeating her to become governor.
"There is really no such thing as a moderate position on guns that's going to help in Texas," said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
As mayor of Houston, White joined Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group that supports individual gun rights, but wants more controls on gun show sales, restrictions on the reach of conceal-and-carry laws and more oversight of federal gun purchase records.
White said he joined the gun-control group in 2006 at the urging of its founder, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. That year, Houston's crime rate hit a 12-year high.
"I joined because Mayor Bloomberg told me that that we needed to do more to crack down on guns which were transported in violation of federal law," White told The Associated Press. "I believe that people shouldn't steal guns and sell them to people where it's against the law for them to have guns, period."
In 2009, facing his first statewide political campaign, White quietly resigned from the group. White says he quit because the group opposed a federal law that would have allowed conceal-carry permit holders to carry their firearms across state lines.
Out of more than 500 mayors, Mayor Richard Ward of Hurst, a Fort Worth suburb, is the lone remaining Texan in the group. A Republican NRA member who owns six guns, Ward says he's been called a "commie" and worse in over 100 e-mails.
Meanwhile, Perry, a Republican and the longest-serving governor in state history, long ago wrapped up the endorsement of the Texas State Rifle Association, aligned with the National Rifle Association, in his bid for an unprecedented third full term.
That was before Perry shot a coyote on his morning jog and inspired the manufacture of a special-issue, Ruger .380 caliber handgun — "for sale to Texans only" — the same kind the governor used on the howling varmit.
He also recently supported a plan to let people licensed to carry a handgun enter the Texas Capitol without going through newly installed metal detectors.
It surprised no one that the NRA gave Perry an "A+" on its latest scorecard of candidates for state elective office. White got a "B."
"He went outside of the state of Texas and aligned himself with out-of-state mayors for heaven sakes," said Alice Tripp, legislative director of the Texas State Rifle Association.
Though they have pushed gun control measures in the past, Democrats are now mostly staying away from the volatile issue. Gun sales spiked in 2008 on fears that Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress would clamp down on firearms. But Obama later signed a bill allowing guns in federal parks and gun control advocates have criticized the White House and Democratic leaders for shunning their agenda.
White told The AP he considers individual gun ownership a bedrock constitutional right and opposes new restrictions on it. He also said any portrayal of him as antigun is "ridiculous" and predicted firearms would not be a major issue in his race.
White, who says he owns two guns but has only hunted once in the last 10 years, complained that he hasn't yet been able to find the 10 hours he needs to train for a concealed weapons permit. He doesn't need one to take his Springfield 9 mm to the shooting range — or, as far as he's concerned, to be elected governor.
"I haven't had anybody tell me they only vote for permit holders," White said.
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