NRA's tactics may have helped make imminent gun-control vote a 'squeaker'

May 06, 1991|By Peter Osterlund | Peter Osterlund,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- About a year ago, the House handily rejected a bill to impose a seven-day waiting period on handgun purchases, instructing the Justice Department to study the issue instead.

This Wednesday, lawmakers are supposed to vote on the very same issue. By all accounts, it's going to be a squeaker.

"The squeaker of squeakers," said the bill's author, Representative Edward F. Feighan, D-Ohio. "But I think the momentum's on our side."

The politics of gun control appear to have been transformed from what they were just a year ago, and partisans on both sides say this week's vote could signify a new turn in the struggle to define an American's right to "keep and bear arms."

No one factor appears wholly responsible for the change. But lawmakers cite growing public support for gun control laws, fed by frustration with urban violence and drug-related crime, as well as a backlash among some members against what are described as heavy-handed tactics by the National Rifle Association, the feared and powerful gun owners lobby.

"It's a new day out there," said Representative Harold L. Volkmer,

D-Mo., a pro-gun-owners-rights lawmaker who thinks "both sides have gone off the reservation."

If the two sides haven't exactly gone off the reservation, their constituent parts have been jumbled. Last month, Ronald Reagan rattled the political establishment when he came out in favor of Mr. Feighan's bill -- dubbed the "Brady bill" after Mr. Reagan's first press secretary, James Brady, who was severely disabled during a 1981 assassination attempt on Mr. Reagan. The White House, reacting to the conversion of Mr. Reagan -- a life member of the NRA -- to gun control, has since adopted a murky stance on the bill.

Meanwhile, the bill's Democratic supporters have been locked in a struggle over the procedure of the impending vote with their own speaker of the house, Washington State's Tom Foley, who is an ardent defender of gun owners rights.

If Mr. Reagan's conversion to gun control has come late, he is not alone. One Republican lawmaker speculated that the former president was reacting to a general change in public sentiment on the issue -- or, at the very least, to the prompting of his wife, Nancy, "who's always good at picking up on these things."

For other public officials, their newfound support for the Brady bill has a different cause -- anger with

the NRA. Take, for example, the case of Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., who always considered himself an NRA stalwart.

When, as a young state legislator, Mr. Sensenbrenner became enamored of the idea of a seven-day waiting period for handgun purchases, he checked first with NRA. "They said they had no position on it, that they didn't view it as a problem," he said. So the legislator made the waiting period a favorite pet cause.

But by 1988, the NRA had decided that a waiting period would, after all, infringe on an American's constitutional right to "keep and bear arms." And though Mr. Sensenbrenner had voted the NRA's way dozens of times, the group went on the attack, mocking his professed support for gun owners rights.

"Hah!" read a letter from NRA official Wayne LaPierre. "With support like that, you might as well have Ted Kennedy representing you."

Despite the NRA's campaign, Mr. Sensenbrenner was handily re-elected and, come Wednesday, will be the lead Republican gunslinger in the House floor showdown over the Brady bill.

"They tried to make me out to be a liar, but none of my constituents bought it," Mr. Sensenbrenner says with almost palpable bitterness. "They're making a lot of enemies up here . . . too many."

Indeed, next week's scheduled gun control vote may prove to be a referendum on what many lawmakers say is the NRA's diminishing clout on Capitol Hill.

The Brady bill would require firearms dealers to send a form completed by a would-be buyer to local police, who would then have seven days to run a background check. An NRA-endorsed alternative would require states to set up within the next six months an instant-check system enabling gun dealers to verify with a phone call that buyers are not felons or fugitives.

Many experts regard the instantaneous check system as ideal. But a preliminary study by the Office of Technology Assessment, leaked this week by Brady supporters, predicted that such a system could not be established throughout the country for five to 10 years. The study buttressed arguments that the NRA's bill is a ruse designed to derail the seven-day waiting period.

The NRA countered with the example of Virginia, which has successfully instituted an instantaneous-check system. Gun control advocates, led by Handgun Control Inc., say that eight states do not have the criminal database needed to develop such a system and that those that do are still years away from implementing a Virginia-style system.

"I'm getting pulled all ways," said Representative Beryl Anthony Jr., D-Ark. "Both sides make it difficult to say no."

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