Battle is expected on gun-buying law NRA and allies to oppose renewal of requirement for 5-day waiting periods


WASHINGTON -- The law requiring a five-day waiting period to buy a handgun is scheduled to expire in November, and gun-control advocates are girding for a bruising late-summer fight with the National Rifle Association and its supporters in Congress over whether to extend it.

The law, part of the Brady bill that Congress approved in 1993, requires gun buyers in many states to wait as long as five working days before taking new handguns home, giving state and local authorities time to conduct background checks to weed out convicted criminals, fugitives and others not eligible to buy guns.

Under the Brady law, the waiting-period requirement is to -expire Nov. 30, when a criminal database allowing almost instantaneous background checks is scheduled to go on line.

Though the issue does not cut precisely along party lines, the emerging debate has taken on a sharply partisan edge, and officials in both major parties predict that it will spill into congressional races in several states.

On one side, Republican Party officials and members of Congress have begun attacking the waiting period as an intrusive, big-government policy that has done nothing to stem violent crime. The Republican leadership in both houses is expected to try to block Democratic legislation that would extend the law.

"While we want to take guns from criminals, we understand there is a Second Amendment, and we're not going to strip honest citizens of their rights," said Clifford May, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, referring to the amendment that grants the right to bear arms.

Democrats have countered by accusing the Republicans of being beholden to the NRA, and they hope to exploit the issue in several hotly contested congressional districts where gun control is considered popular, including in New York's Senate race.

"This is a great issue in the 1998 elections," said Rep. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat who is seeking his party's nomination for the Senate and is a leading advocate for extending the law. "To let Brady expire will expose the soft underbelly of Republicans: that they are extreme on social issues."

All the remaining provisions of the Brady law, including that gun buyers pass background checks, are to remain in effect. And starting in November, the law requires that background checks be extended to prospective purchasers of all guns, not just pistols.

The bill was named for James S. Brady, President Reagan's press secretary, who was seriously wounded in the 1981 attempt on Reagan's life. His wife, Sarah Brady, is a leading lobbyist for extending the waiting-period law.

Slightly more than half of the states are exempt from the Brady law because they have their own systems for licensing guns and checking buyers' backgrounds.

Even so, law enforcement officials in states with restrictive gun laws say that it is important for Congress to impose tougher gun laws nationwide to stem the flow of weapons across state lines. In New York, the vast majority of firearms used in crimes are purchased outside the state.

The new national database, operated by the FBI, is supposed to allow gun-store owners, with one call, to check a range of government criminal, immigration and mental health records. A separate federal law, passed before the Brady bill, prohibits several categories of people, including felons, fugitives, the mentally ill and illegal immigrants, from buying guns.

Last year, 69,000 handgun purchases were blocked because of background checks, according to the Justice Department.

Proponents of extending the waiting-period requirement say the federal database will not include local documents that could be vital for determining whether a person is eligible to buy a gun, including state mental health records, restraining orders and domestic-violence misdemeanor files. They contend a waiting period is needed to give local and state officials time to research those additional documents.

The proponents also say that waiting periods provide time for emotionally distraught people to cool down before buying pistols that might be used in suicides or crimes of passion.

"It can serve as a deterrent from being able to grab a gun and act on anger or depression," said Sarah Brady, chairwoman of Handgun Control Inc., a nonprofit group that lobbies for gun control.

To win support, proponents of having a waiting period say they are preparing a bill that would cut the period to three days.

But opponents contend that the national database will be sufficient for background checks. Even with additional time, local officials are unlikely to sift through records that are not available on the federal system, they say. And they argue that there is no evidence that waiting periods prevent crimes of passion.

"I just don't think Congress right now is going to be in the mood for an expansion of unnecessary gun control," said Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican.

Pub Date: 7/12/98

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