WASHINGTON — WHEN FORMER President Ronald Reagan "celebrated" the 10th anniversary of his near-assassination here the other day, his endorsement of pending legislation to require a seven-day waiting period for a handgun purchase was greeted as some kind of breakthrough. But it really was Rip Van Winkle awakening from a decade of stupor to say something he should have said even before he was shot.
All through Reagan's White House tenure, it was a not-so-well-kept secret that he was a man held captive by the rigidity of conservative dogma. How else to explain how he could get gunned down himself and still hold to the National Rifle Association's nonsense that "guns don't kill people, people kill people?"
The former president, famed for being in touch with the average Joe, allowed 10 years late that "it's just plain common sense that there be a waiting period to allow local law-enforcement officials to conduct background checks on those who wish to purchase handguns." Typically for him, he insisted there was nothing new in what he was saying.
The fact was that all through his presidency Reagan mused that a waiting period was all right but that it should be left to the individual states to impose. The pending bill, pushed strongly for years by Reagan's former press secretary, James Brady, permanently disabled in the same shooting, would make the waiting period mandatory nationally.
One would have thought that if Reagan's own brush with death from the business end of a handgun did not persuade him, Brady's long and courageous struggle to recover from wounds suffered in his service might have done the trick well before now. But Reagan sat idly by in the White House when what is now known as the Brady bill was debated and defeated in the House in 1988.
Since the 1981 attempt on Reagan's life, according to Handgun Control Inc., the prime lobbying group for the bill, about 200,000 individuals have been killed by handguns in this country. It may be too much to suggest that had Reagan spoken out sooner these lives could have been saved, but the jarring statistic certainly draws into question whether Reagan should be commended now for finally recognizing the "common sense" of a very modest gun-control measure.
Although Susan Whitmore of Handgun Control says Reagan's statement has provided added "momentum" for passage of the Brady bill this year, she can offer no firm congressional conversions as a result. She merely expresses a hope that "some members of Congress who didn't have the courage to oppose the NRA will now come out for it." An NRA spokesman, Tom Wyld, dismisses Reagan's endorsement as "an expression of loyalty to a former employee," and says it will rally NRA members to continue opposition to the Brady bill.
Shortly before Reagan awoke from his Winkle-like slumber, a prominent House -- and NRA -- member from a Western, hunting-oriented state, Democratic Rep. Les AuCoin of Oregon, announced that he had had enough with the NRA's head-in-the-sand attitude and was supporting the Brady bill. But it will take more than a few isolated vote switches in the House, where the bill lost by 46 votes in 1988.
Reagan as a retired president obviously doesn't have his former clout with Congress. He can probably best exert influence on his successor, who until recently was adamant against gun control but is beginning to show signs of crumbling. A White House spokesman said after Reagan called on President Bush that Bush doesn't support the Brady bill "in its current form," suggesting he may swallow it with some face-saving wrinkles.
The NRA meanwhile is pushing a bill by Democratic Rep. Harley Staggers of West Virginia providing for swift checks of gun purchasers, in lieu of a waiting period, through state screening systems -- systems that the gun-control lobby says are ineffective. The Brady bill now calls for development of a nationwide screening system, but meanwhile would establish the mandatory waiting period.
If the bill gets through the House this year and past a stiffer test in the Senate, no doubt Ronald Reagan's statement of support will be hailed as the decisive breakthrough. But the question will remain: What took this man, so often credited with common sense that made up for a lack of intellect, so long to recognize that the menace that nearly took his own life has become a national menace that demands controlling?