WASHINGTON -- Supporters of a bill that would impose a seven-day waiting period for handgun purchases were dealt a setback yesterday when the House Rules Committee said a competing measure, backed by the National Rifle Association, could be taken up by the House of Representatives today.
The alternative, sponsored by Representative Harley O. Staggers Jr., D-W.Va., would require a check for criminal backgrounds on handgun buyers at the time of purchase.
In its key decision on sending the two bills to the House floor, the 13-member House Rules Committee voted to follow standard rules during floor debate. That means the Staggers measure could be substituted for the measure to establish a waiting period, derailing the latter bill for the congressional year.
The Staggers proposal seems virtually certain to come up first, since only a move by Mr. Staggers himself would cause it to be withdrawn from early consideration.
The practical impact of either bill has been overshadowed by the symbolic and political importance of the legislative struggle. Lately, the influence of the NRA and other opponents of gun control has seemed to slip, in the view of some gun-control lawmakers, and by most accounts the likelihood of eventual passage of laws that could restrict ownership of handguns has increased.
Passage of the bill establishing a waiting period over the objections of the NRA could signal a move toward such restrictive legislation.
On the other hand, legislators under heavy pressure from both gun owners and advocates of tougher gun laws in their home districts could flock to the Staggers proposal as a less objectionable alternative, handing the rifle association a legislative victory.
This development would mean that the rifle association had reasserted its influence by blocking the bill to set a waiting period.
The waiting period has been endorsed by former President Ronald Reagan and is named for his former press secretary, James S. Brady, who was seriously wounded in the 1981 attempt on Mr. Reagan's life.
During the seven days, gun dealers would be required to provide local police agencies with the name, address and birth date of prospective buyers. The police could check the buyers' backgrounds for criminal and mental-health records but would not have to do so.
"If we don't defeat Staggers, that's it," said Representative John Joseph Moakley, D-Mass., the chairman of the rules committee, who backs the Brady bill.
Mr. Moakley said Brady bill supporters agreed to let the vote be taken on a Staggers amendment because they feared that otherwise the House gun-control vote would disintegrate into a debate about any rules that would alter the normal legislative process, which allows substitute amendments such as the one Staggers plans to offer.
Calling the Staggers amendment a "ruse" supported by the NRA, Representative Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said Congress is going to have to muster the courage to oppose the NRA and pass the Brady bill.