Congratulations to the Houses of Representatives for restoring Americans' faith in democracy. For years, polls have shown that the American people want stricter controls on weapons of crime, especially the so-called assault-style or military-style weapons that fire large numbers of rounds in rapid-fire order. Yet every attempt to legislate against these weapons had failed -- till yesterday. Thursday's vote of 216-214 in favor of a ban was quite a change from the 1991 vote of 247-177 against banning these weapons.
Perhaps the individual most responsible for this turnaround was Rep. Charles Schumer, the Brooklyn Democrat who is chairman of the House Judiciary's subcommittee on crime. He mastered the details of the bill, then masterminded the effort to put together a majority. He had to do this against the canny and influential chairman of his committee, Jack Brooks of Texas. He had to do so, furthermore, without the full support of his party's leader, Speaker Tom Foley, a longtime opponent of gun control legislation.
A very strong player in this victory was President Clinton. He sent his administration's best persuaders (and, probably, traders) to Capitol Hill to seek votes. That is a big change from three years ago, when George Bush was in the White House. (This year, only George Bush among the ex-presidents did not ask Congress to approve the ban.)
Another individual who looked good in this debate was Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who served as chairman of the "Committee of the Whole House," the parliamentary situation in which the bill was ,, debated. He got a lot of C-SPAN time, and was impressive in his calm, capable handling of some very heated and occasionally vituperative debaters. He supported the bill, as did all his Maryland colleagues except Rep. Helen Delich Bentley and Rep. Roscoe Bartlett. Mrs. Bentley indicated last December that she would support an assault weapons ban. But she seems to have become afraid to give her opponents in the Republican gubernatorial primary that issue. Her famous face-lift produced a pleasing profile but not a courageous one.
Rep. Wayne Gilchrest did display courage in voting for this bill. His Eastern Shore district contains many hunters and other gun sportsmen who have been fed a diet of misleading information by some members of Congress and, especially, by the National Rifle Association (yesterday's biggest loser) about how a ban on assault weapons will affect them. Representative Brooks said yesterday that "frenzied advocates" of the bill had lumped honest sportsmen with "deranged psychopaths." Not so. Every speech we heard by advocates, even those in a frenzy, made it clear that they saw a big distinction between criminals with street-sweepers and hunters with rifles and shotguns.