In wake of shootings, grief and hypocrisy reign on Capitol Hill

July 29, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- In giving the two police officers slain in the U.S. Capitol shooting spree the honor of a rotunda tribute usually reserved for the highest government officials, Congress is reflecting the grief that has blanketed Capitol Hill over the episode.

But at the same time, the legislators as a group are demonstrating once again their hypocrisy toward the issue that the incident has laid at their doorstep, this time in starker terms than in recent years.

That is Congress' unwillingness to take on the matter of the mindlessly widespread availability of guns in our society, and to take even the most modest steps to inhibit their use by individuals rendered dangerous by mental disorder or irrationality or by children.

The National Rifle Association, the lead organization of the pro-gun lobby, argues that the alleged assailant in the Capitol incident was barred by law from possessing a gun because he at one time had been committed to a mental institution.

It is noted that he got one anyway, apparently from a relative who never reported that fact.

It is true that laws alone can't stop the gun violence, but Congress repeatedly has backed away from taking action that could if properly enforced reduce crimes like the Capitol shootings.

Only a week ago, the Senate declined to consider two modest appropriations bill amendments that sought to provide greater protection against the sort of mayhem delivered upon children in their schools by armed classmates. One, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, would have required child safety locks on handguns. The other, offered by Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, would have held parents legally responsible for locking up guns in their possession away from children.

Instead, the Senate adopted a toothless alternative to the Boxer amendment that would merely require gun dealers to make the safety locks available for pur- chase, which most do already. The amendment's sponsor was Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, a member of the NRA board.

As in the past concerning acts of gun violence, President Clinton has been swift to offer words of condolence to the victims and their families, but disinclined to provide real leadership in taking on the NRA in a major assault on the national insanity of easy access to guns.

The most highly publicized legislation aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, the mentally disturbed and children -- the "Brady law" requiring background checks on would-be purchasers -- has been under fire from the NRA since it went into effect in early 1994, and it faces significant erosion later this year.

Under a "sunset" provision in the law, a five-day waiting period on any gun purchase to allow for the background check is to be eliminated after Nov. 30. That's when a nationwide computerized check operated by the FBI is supposed to be put into use, financed to the tune of $230 million from Congress. But gun-control advocates argue that the new system won't be effective because as many as half of the 57 million police records of criminals across the country won't be accessible through it.

Defenders of the Brady law say the waiting period is important not only for background checks but also to provide a cooling-off period -- a deterrent for crimes of passion. NRA spokesmen say such crimes usually occur anyway.

Democratic Rep. Charles Schumer of New York has introduced a bill in the House to extend the five-day waiting period past Nov. 30, and the NRA will use its political influence, bolstered by heavy campaign contributions to supportive congressmen, to defeat it. Passage would constitute a much more significant expression of condolence for the Capitol shooting victims than pious words, but don't count on seeing it happen once the mourning period fades from memory.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 7/29/98

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