WASHINGTON -- Against long legislative odds, President Clinton unveiled yesterday what he called the most sweeping package of gun-control measures in a generation, hoping that the tragedy at a Colorado high school will counter the gun lobby's power in Congress.
At an event suffused with the potent symbolism of Columbine High School, Clinton proposed an array of new regulations, including extending background checks to purchases of explosives; banning the importation of high-capacity automatic weapon clips; raising the legal age of handgun and assault weapons possession from 18 to 21; requiring child-safety locks to be sold with all guns; and limiting the purchase of handguns to one a month.
The legislation would require background checks for firearms purchases at gun shows, a provision highlighted by Clinton, who said it would remove "a dangerous loophole" in existing law "that was likely exploited in Littleton."
Investigators said yesterday that the 18-year-old girlfriend of one of the gunmen bought at least two weapons for them at a gun show.
Also under the legislation, adults would be held criminally responsible for allowing children access to their guns; a mandatory waiting period would be re-imposed on gun purchases; and federal agents would be given more money to track guns used in crimes.
"We can pass it all if the American people want it badly enough," said the president, urging the public to flood Congress with telephone calls and letters. "We don't need to go through another Littleton."
Despite the emotional backdrop, the political task will be daunting. Gun control has long been one of the most bitter issues in American politics, and opposition to gun laws, though predominantly Republican, also comes from some powerful Democrats.
Opinion polls, however, have long shown that a majority of voters support gun-control laws, such as the Brady Act, whose five-day waiting period for handgun buyers expired in November.
A study last year in the New England Journal of Medicine found that 81 percent of those polled -- including 53 percent of gun owners -- approved of limiting handgun purchases to one a month. The poll, taken by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Policy and Research, also found that 77 percent favor background checks for handgun sales, including 72 percent of gun owners.
Power of gun groups
Yet the power of gun groups and their politically motivated, quickly mobilized members has made gun-control legislation virtually nonexistent in Congress. That has been especially true since the Republicans swept to victory in 1994, powered in part by the National Rifle Association's rage over the assault-weapons ban pushed through by Democrats that year.
Republican leaders -- while vowing to treat Clinton's proposals respectfully -- said the nation needs no more gun laws. Some of them argue that criminals find ways to evade the gun restrictions already on the books, making additional legislation pointless.
Instead, Republicans are pushing a "national dialogue" on youth culture. Senate Republican leader Trent Lott said he would put together panels of experts, clergy members and teen-agers to discuss violence in video games, television, films and the Internet.
Lott, of Mississippi, denounced Clinton's proposal as "a knee-jerk response."
Even Democratic leaders were cool to the White House proposal. Vulnerable Democrats such as Sens. Charles S. Robb of Virginia and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico could be hurt by a divisive gun-control debate before the 2000 election because of the many gun enthusiasts in their states.
Democratic congressional leaders say they will try to give gun-control advocates opportunities to bring Clinton's proposals to a vote. But they signaled that the White House and lower-ranking Democrats will have to take the lead.
Democratic leaders absent
None of the Democratic leadership was among more than 40 lawmakers who joined the president to roll out the gun-control package. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota told reporters that he was unclear what benefits would be derived from additional restrictions, noting, "We've got a lot of gun laws right now."
That comment left some rank-and-file Democrats fuming.
"His statement was a little bit of a shock to me, quite frankly," said Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat and longtime gun-control advocate.
An emotional Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat whose husband was killed in a mass shooting on the Long Island Rail Road, expressed her skepticism and frustration at the politics yesterday, predicting: "We'll go to committee, and there will be silence as the shootings go on. When we go to the speaker of the House and beg for a debate on the floor, there will be silence, and the shootings will go on."
Even Clinton acknowledged the deep cultural rift over gun control, imploring hunters and sport shooters not to be misled by gun groups into believing that his proposals would unduly infringe on their rights.