Supreme Court gives ammunition to NRA

ON POLITICS

April 28, 1995|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- At the time President Clinton is proposing new anti-terrorism legislation after the violence that rocked Oklahoma City, there's a special irony in the Supreme Court's 5-4 vote throwing out the federal law banning guns in the nation's schoolyards.

The decision, based on the majority's view that federal legislators unconstitutionally invaded a realm of local responsibility, has potential ramifications far beyond the case of a Texas schoolboy convicted for bringing a concealed pistol to school.

Only days before the ruling, groups who contend the Second Amendment guarantees an absolute right to bear arms were nervous that Congress would use the Oklahoma City bombing as a catalyst not only to enact tougher anti-terrorist measures but also to stymie their attempts to repeal the 1993 ban on certain assault weapons.

Stated intentions to make a vote on repeal a priority item, now that the House Republicans' first 100 days' push for their "Contract with America" is over, suddenly were shelved. The rationale was that the new anti-terrorist legislation had to be given precedence. But it was quite obvious that advocates of repeal decided the climate in the wake of the Oklahoma City outrage was not ideal for proposing to put more assault weapons on the streets.

Now that the Supreme Court has raised the issue of federal jurisdiction in the Texas schoolboy case, the gun lobby, headed by the free-spending National Rifle Association (NRA), is certain to press the same argument, validly or not, to challenge other federal gun control laws, including the assault weapons ban and the Brady law.

The latter, one of Clinton's most trumpeted accomplishments, requires a five-day waiting period to buy a handgun while a background check is made by state officials. Several federal district courts already have ruled it unconstitutional for imposing that task on the state jurisdictions, holding that the 10th Amendment reserves to the states powers not explicitly granted to the federal government by the Constitution. The Clinton administration is appealing.

The gun control lobby, led by Handgun Control Inc., does not challenge the NRA's claim that it had as many as 225 House members lined up to support the repeal of the assault weapons ban before the Oklahoma City bombing. But the gun foes

hope the bombing will give many of the proponents of repeal second thoughts, particularly with the increased public focus on armed militias in the wake of the bombing.

For that reason, says Susan Whitmore of Handgun Control, early congressional voting on the repeal, promised to the NRA in a letter from Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, should not be delayed. She calls the postponement "an act of cowardice, a real political retreat." If the NRA believes repeal is critical, she says, "they should do it now." Instead, she says, "they are going to try to sneak it by the American people after the visions of the Oklahoma City bombing have faded."

About a month ago, before the bombing, gun control groups launched a campaign in conjunction with 90 church, ethnic and civil organizations to hold gun control seminars around the country. That effort was undertaken with the impression that Dole and other proponents of the repeal had it on a fast track. Now apparently there will be more time to work against it as the proponents wait for the public trauma over the event in Oklahoma to pass.

The bitter debate over guns, meanwhile, has been complicated by the Supreme Court ruling in the Texas schoolboy decision. Handgun Control Inc. insists that "the issues raised in this case are not the same issues raised in gun lobby-backed challenges to other federal gun control laws, such as the Brady law and the assault weapons ban." The ruling, it says, "is very narrow and pertains only to Congress' ability to regulate the possession of firearms in a particular place."

That fact, however, will not stop the NRA and its allies from stepping up their arguments not only that the Second Amendment is absolute but also that the feds have no constitutional right to poke their noses into areas that are or should be of state or local jurisdiction.

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