After Columbine, a political sea change on gun control

Pro-gun initiatives in many states are staggered by events

Colorado School Shootings

April 23, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Forty-eight hours after one of the deadliest shooting sprees in American history, fortunes of pro-gun legislation in states across the country have radically reversed, and even the most unapologetic gun rights supporters are seeking to lower their profiles.

Highlighting the trend, the National Rifle Association, known for its uncompromising support for the gun, retreated yesterday and announced -- after a sometimes bitter internal debate -- that it would dramatically scale back its annual convention next week in Denver.

The 128th membership meeting -- set to include firearms expositions, Second Amendment seminars and lavish meals over a fully scheduled three days -- will be limited to a single Saturday morning gathering.

Denver Mayor Wellington Webb told reporters yesterday that the NRA was not welcome and that he would rather they not come at all.

But the 2.7 million member organization, while bowed, refused to break, asking every able-bodied member to appear at the Adam's Mark Denver Hotel at 10 a.m. on May 1. There, NRA president Charlton Heston is planning what an aide called a "major address on the crisis all Americans now face."

Letter from Heston

In a letter to members, Heston and Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said they were modifying the schedule to "show our profound sympathy and respect for the families and communities in the Denver area in their time of great loss."

"Our spirits must endure this terrible suffering together, and so must the freedoms that bring us together," Heston and LaPierre wrote. "We must stand in somber but unshakable unity, even in this time of anguish.

They added: "That's why we need you, more than ever, to attend this gathering."

Such a show of force may be necessary to assuage nervous legislators across the country.

After the shooting, the Republican leadership of Colorado's legislature pulled two bills that had been expected to pass easily this year: one to ease restrictions on concealed weapons, another to weaken the ability of Denver and other cities to put restrictions on gun ownership and possession.

In addition, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, after refusing to announce a position for 24 hours, said he would veto a bill that he had sought to protect gun companies from lawsuits.

"We're dropping this out of respect. It's just so inappropriate to be discussing these issues right now," said Tom Blickensderfer, the Republican majority leader of Colorado's State Senate, in a phone interview yesterday. "Rightly or wrongly, the public is making such a strong connection between these bills and what has occurred in our state."

Outside of Colorado, the Littleton shootings also appear to have wounded bills in a dozen states that would have protected gun manufacturers from lawsuits by cities.

Mayors in New Orleans, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami Dade County, Cleveland and Bridgeport, Conn., have filed suits in the past six months to recover costs associated with gun violence. But several legislatures were poised to block the court cases before they got started.

In Florida, a bill to stop Miami's suit -- and jail Mayor Alex Penelas if he pursued it -- had been expected to win passage -- until Tuesday. Its backers withdrew the bill Wednesday. Support for similar measures in states from Louisiana to California was reportedly weakened by the shooting.

Sea change in attitudes

"I think there's been a sea change in public attitudes on this," said Vinnie DeMarco, chair of the legislative committee for Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse. "Somehow, this one is different. It has galvanized people."

If gun rights supporters were suddenly reluctant, politicians sympathetic to gun control appeared to have been emboldened. Officials at the Washington-based Center to Prevent Handgun Violence predicted that a half-dozen more cities would bring lawsuits against gun manufacturers in the next few weeks.

Saying that the shootings had changed the legislative landscape, the White House said yesterday that it would send Congress a package of gun-control bills that had failed to pass before.

In Annapolis, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was charting an aggressive strategy to promote legislation requiring that guns be made "personalized" and "child-proof."

Firearms, she said, should be able to be fired only by their intended user. Aides predicted that gun legislation would be the top issue facing the General Assembly next year.

Watching the firestorm of new gun-control proposals, some gun rights supporters were privately grumbling.

"At a more rational time," said Colorado's Blickensderfer, "I think people would see that the tragedy and the legislation are separate things."

Pub Date: 4/23/99

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