Senate moves slowly toward passing crime bill

July 12, 1991|By David Hess | David Hess,Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- The Senate, heeding public outrage over spreading violence in the streets, moved slowly last night toward passage of a $3.3 billion anti-crime bill that would slap new controls on firearms and greatly increase the number of offenses punishable by death.

But critics charged that the bill failed to get at the underlying causes of crime. And even supporters acknowledged that some of its most controversial provisions -- expanding the death penalty, restricting appeals by death row inmates and allowing police to introduce in court evidence now considered illegally seized -- would do little to reduce street crime.

Still, Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., a co-sponsor of the bill with Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., said that it "will prove to be an effective tool in halting the spread of vicious crime."

And Mr. Biden hailed it as "a tough crime bill that includes death penalties for many more offenses, makes it harder for criminals to buy guns, bans assault weapons, beefs up federal and local crime fighters, launches an attack on gangs, on rural crime and on drug offenders, and provides new prisons."

However, Sen. Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., acknowledged that "probably none of the provisions in this bill authorizing more crime fighters will be a reality. Clearly, we don't have the money to pay for any of them."

In fact, the House -- where the bill goes next -- already has voted to cut funds for federal law enforcement in next year's budget, including a reduction in the number of existing FBI agents. But Mr. Biden insisted that the public's alarm over crime would impel Congress to spend more money to combat it.

"We engaged in a crass political contest over whether Democrats or Republicans hated crime the most," said Sen. Howard H. Metzenbaum, D-Ohio. "Let's stipulate we all hate crime, but let's also recognize the roots of crime are in communities where poverty, the breakup of families and illiteracy prevail."

The bill's most visible -- and controversial -- provision is a mandatory five-day waiting period and background check for gun purchasers and the development of an instant national background check of buyers. In addition, the legislation would ban the sale of nine types of military-style assault weapons.

In adopting those provisions, the Senate overcame a filibuster mounted by several senators allied with the National Rifle Association, which called the measure "not a crime bill but a gun-control bill."

Senate sponsors boasted that their bill would give police and prosecutors more weapons to fight the war against violent crime.

But critics charged that it would treat the symptoms and not the causes of criminal behavior.

They argued that Congress already had enacted more than 230 new criminal laws over the last three years with little apparent impact on crime rates.

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