Gun strategies continue beyond the Brady bill

ON POLITICS

December 01, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- In signing the Brady bill requiring a five-day waiting period on the sale of handguns, President Clinton called it "step one in taking our streets back." It may be no more than that, but considering the carnage that handguns cause in the country -- one shooting every 20 minutes, Clinton said -- a first step has been sorely needed.

It has been a national disgrace that it has taken so long to achieve enactment -- more than 12 years after Jim Brady, its namesake, was felled in the hail of bullets intended to kill, and nearly did kill, President Ronald Reagan.

Passage was achieved, equally shamefully, without the active assistance of Reagan, for whom Brady was toiling as press secretary at the time. Reagan, after refusing to support the Brady bill during the rest of his eight-year tenure in the White House, reluctantly said he would back it during the term of his successor, George Bush, but Bush steadfastly refused.

The measure, which provides the time for background checks on purchasers to make sure they do not have criminal records or histories of mental problems, is often denigrated as virtually meaningless because handguns are so readily available from sources other than over-the-counter sales. But states that now have such waiting periods have identified and barred sales to those legally prohibited from purchasing them and report tens of thousands of such prohibitions.

According to the Washington Post, in four states alone with waiting periods -- Maryland, Virginia, Florida and California -- 47,000 disqualified buyers have been turned down in the last four years as a result of background checks.

The National Rifle Association, still on the firing line against any intrusions on what it insists is a constitutional right to bear arms, fought the bill to the 12th hour and will continue fighting. According to Mary Sue Faulkner, media liaison for the NRA, legislation will be pushed when Congress comes back in January to drop the waiting period after two years, rather than a cutoff after five years as stipulated in the Brady bill.

By that time, a national computerized system is supposed to be in place to provide almost instant background checks. Under the bill, $200 million is to go to the states to help them upgrade their systems, many of which still rely on manual checks. Handgun control activists say they will fight for an extension if the system is not in place by the time the five years are up.

In the meantime, their lead organization, Handgun Control Inc., is preparing a comprehensive package of legislation that will include registration of handguns and mandatory safety training for purchasers. "When you buy a hair dryer," says the organization's spokeswoman, Susan Whitmore, "you get instructions telling you not to use it in the bathtub. But when you buy a handgun, you get nothing -- except maybe an application (( to join the NRA."

Another handgun control organization, the National Coalition to Ban Handguns, has the much more ambitious agenda of ending private handgun ownership outright. Jeff Muchnick, its legislative director, acknowledges that public opinion is not there yet, but says it is growing. He cites a Harris Survey of last summer showing 52 percent of Americans polled favored the ban.

The NRA, meanwhile, is working to focus anti-crime efforts away from gun control to criminal justice reform, including the so-called "three strikes and out" legislation passed in Washington state providing life imprisonment without parole after the commission of three felonies, and the building of more prisons.

At the same time, the NRA clings to the view that the Second Amendment guarantees the right of all individuals to bear arms, not just in the context of a "militia," as the wording of the Constitution indicates. Lower courts, however, have upheld outright bans since the Chicago suburb of Morton Grove enacted one 12 years ago.

Faulkner says the NRA hasn't taken the issue to the Supreme Court because there hasn't been a "critical mass" of cases. But ** the handgun foes say it's because the NRA knows it would lose and prefers to continue the "myth" of constitutional protection.

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