As guns terrorize D.C., Brady bill's odds ripen ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- This being the football off-season, and with Congress in its Easter recess, the focus of attention in the nation's capital has turned to less esoteric matters, such as several drive-by shootings terrorizing a District of Columbia neighborhood over the past seven weeks.

Two people have been killed and four wounded within a 10-block area by, police believe, a gunman stalking the neighborhood for individuals walking alone, mostly in the late evenings. The D.C. police have finally taken to a massive stakeout, with uniformed and plainclothes officers combing the area with a twofold purpose -- to seek clues to the identity and whereabouts of the assailant and to deter him from striking again in the terrified neighborhood.

Although Washington for several years now has worn the unhappy mantle of "the crime capital of the nation," seldom has the terror been so concentrated or disturbing, not only within the affected neighborhood but across the city. The thought has no doubt crossed the mind of more than one Washingtonian that if the cops are giving saturation coverage to one isolated part of the city, it might be time for the gunman to move on to other parts with easier pickings.

The latest terror by gun has hit Washington in the peak of the tourist season, with Easter Sunday's warm and bright weather bringing out the city's celebrated cherry blossoms in full bloom. Longtime residents who have become accustomed to pooh-poohing when they hear that out-of-towners are afraid to visit their nation's capital because of the crime record are biting their tongues this week.

At the same time, just up the road a piece, in a Baltimore neighborhood, folks remain unnerved by another shooting on Saturday night in which 12 people were injured. One man, a bank security guard, was arrested the next day but three other suspects are being sought in a shooting spree in which about 40 shots were fired from a semiautomatic assault rifle and other weapons.

All this is a grisly reminder that in spite of the election to the presidency of an avowed advocate of gun control, Congress still hasn't acted on the Brady bill, the proposal for a modest five-day waiting period for the purchase of a handgun to effect a background check of the prospective purchaser. The bill's namesake and principal proponent is former White House press secretary James Brady, crippled in the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in the first weeks of his White House tenure in 1981.

Among Reagan's most shameless failures in office was that he never endorsed the Brady bill, although he later called on his successor, President George Bush, to do so. Bush wouldn't either, in the process becoming the National Rifle Association's last line of, er, defense. He insisted it be part of a crime bill that he wouldn't sign either, threatening a veto if it was sent to him separately. The House passed it anyway but the Senate caved in to the threat.

The Brady bill, according to the antitrust subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, now sits on the Senate's action desk awaiting a call-up. On the House side, an agent for the Judiciary subcommittee on crime says hearings will be held, but none is scheduled right now.

Why are they necessary at this point, in light of the current terror here and in other parts of the country? A staffer for Handgun Control Inc., the anti-gun lobby, says more hearings are needed because many people believe the Brady bill was passed long ago.

Perhaps the answer for the failure is that there are actually signs of "progress." Here in the District, for example, according to the D.C. police, "only" 80 percent of the homicides so far this year have been firearms-related, compared with 84 percent a year ago at this time. Some progress.

If President Clinton really wants this legislation passed, it is probably his for the asking. It has a record number of co-sponsors in Congress, including enough Republicans to void their party's latest fancy for filibustering to block the will of the Democratic majority in the Senate. Clinton has also said he supports a ban on assault weapons.

There is not likely to be a better climate in "the crime capital of the nation" to act than right now, when the terror is so vividly close to home.

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