By Alan Gottlieb and Dave Workman

Somebody needs to advise Sen. John Kerry and his campaign staff that when you’re in a hole, you should stop digging.

The Democratic presidential nominee – or as is being claimed now, some campaign aide – put their collective foot in it when, in response to a question from Outdoor Life magazine about what Kerry’s favorite gun might be, this was the answer: “My favorite gun is the M-16 that saved my life and that of my crew in Vietnam. I don’t own one of those now, but one of my reminders of my service is a Communist Chinese assault rifle.”

That reply set off a firestorm in the gun rights community, and once again brought unwanted focus on what is strongly believed by a majority of gun owners to be Kerry’s carefully manufactured interest in firearms, and crafted image as a recreational shooter and hunter. Suddenly, the man who has built a reputation over 20 years on Capitol Hill as a supporter of every gun control proposal to cross his desk – including bans on the ownership of so-called “assault rifles” by average citizens – is suddenly confessing to owning one himself.

Whether that gun had been rendered inoperable, as subsequently claimed by a spokeswoman, was irrelevant. That he owned one at all while backing legislation that would prevent others from owning similar guns pushed Kerry’s weathervane needle right off the hypocrisy meter. It became immediately evident that damage control was necessary.

As the controversy took on a life of its own, the Kerry campaign hurriedly issued something of a “correction/retraction/denial” when an unidentified campaign aide was blamed for the “gaffe.” Instead of being a “Communist Chinese assault rifle,” Kerry’s war souvenir became something else, apparently a Mosin-Nagant bolt-action rifle used by Soviet snipers against invading Germans during WWII.

Well, what’s worse for Sen. Kerry to have on his office wall, an “assault rifle” or a “sniper rifle?” Both have become demons of the gun control crowd.

This isn’t a “gaffe.” This is an Olympic class insult to the intelligence of every gun owner who knows the difference between a prized firearm and political fraud.

Kerry’s campaign has been pushing an image of the liberal Massachusetts Democrat as a sportsman and hunter for more than a year. But photo ops featuring Kerry shooting Iowa pheasants or Wisconsin clay birds, or accepting a semi-automatic shotgun at a West Virginia Labor Day rally have been ringing hollow with the majority of gun owners throughout the campaign. After all, this is the same John Kerry who broke from his presidential run during the primary season to race back to Capitol Hill, from where he had been AWOL, to cast a series of votes against hunters, gun owners and firearms manufacturers.

This episode raises other concerns beyond Kerry’s apparent hypocrisy, and his, or his staff’s, lack of firearms knowledge. Most importantly, if a Kerry aide, and not the senator himself, provided answers to Outdoor Life’s questionnaire, what does that say about the importance Kerry attaches to communicating with the shooters and hunters whose votes he has been trying so hard to court?

It is of little genuine concern to gun owners whether Mr. Kerry owns an “assault rifle” or really is handling the necessary paperwork for legal transfer of that West Virginia shotgun, as a campaign spokeswoman insists. She noted that an attorney for the campaign is apparently making sure the shotgun transfer is done legally, and that’s good, because an honest citizen just about needs a lawyer to understand all the crazy gun laws that have been passed over the last 20 years, with Kerry’s full support.

What does concern the firearms community is Kerry’s record. Gun people are not the ignorant bumpkins that Democrat spinmeisters evidently think we are. Kerry can tell us all day long that he supports the Second Amendment, but he’s not saying he believes in an individual right to keep and bear arms, and his votes certainly don’t reflect it.

One does not merely “support” a civil right, one lives it and defends it zealously. The proof of that lies not in what a candidate says on the campaign trail, or what he may have hanging on his wall that he cannot readily identify, but what he does to protect that right from abuse, not only for today’s citizens, but for tomorrow’s as well.