WASHINGTON -- The National Rifle Association endorsed Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett's Democratic opponent last year. Since then, the conservative freshman Republican from Western Maryland has been working hard to make sure that doesn't happen again.
He took the latest step yesterday, staging a news conference outside a House committee room to complain that he had been denied permission to testify against gun control legislation at a hearing about to take place inside the room.
Mr. Bartlett has introduced two pieces of legislation which he says are designed to protect the constitutional rights of gun owners.
One, introduced in March, would overturn state laws that prevent ownership of a handgun, rifle or shotgun for self-defense.
The second, introduced last week, would set up an "instant check" system, using state drivers' licenses, for making sure that prospective gun buyers are not convicted felons.
His efforts to woo the gun lobby appear to be having some success. Although the NRA endorsed state Del. Thomas H. Hattery, Mr. Bartlett's 1992 Democratic opponent, based on Mr. Hattery's voting record in Annapolis, it has quickly thrown its financial support to Mr. Bartlett since his election to Congress.
In March, two political action committees affiliated with the NRA gave Mr. Bartlett $9,900 in contributions earmarked for his 1992 campaign. Post-election contributions are legal, according to the Federal Election Commission, in cases, such as Mr. Bartlett's, where the candidate ends a campaign in debt. Mr. Bartlett ended his campaign with a debt of some $65,000, all of it owed to himself.
Gun control is a potent issue in his conservative Western Maryland district. At town meetings and encounters with constituents, Mr. Bartlett is often told to vote against the Brady bill and other gun control legislation. The scene in a House office building yesterday amounted to dueling media events. Cameras were already set up inside the committee room for the hearing on the so-called Brady bill, named after James Brady, press secretary to Ronald Reagan who was seriously wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on the former president.
Mr. Bartlett appeared outside the door and, joined by a representative of the Gun Owners of America, complained that he had been denied the opportunity to testify at the hearing. As Mr. Brady was being wheeled past them into the hearing room, they complained about "being shut out of the democratic process."
Committee aides said a dozen members of Congress had asked to testify and that all were turned down for reasons of time. They said 4 of the 11 witnesses were opponents of the measure.
The Brady bill would require a five-day wait to buy a handgun, during which police would determine if the prospective purchaser has a criminal record or a history of mental instability.
Mr. Bartlett and the gun owners group complain that this would lead to the establishment of a national registry of gun owners "in violation of the spirit of the Second Amendment."
He said he wanted to testify in favor of his own proposal. Under it, "an individual's status as a criminal would be encoded on a magnetic strip on the back of their driver's license," said Mr. Bartlett.
Gun dealers would be required to have an "on-site, inexpensive machine" that would read the license.