NRA's clout on Hill is put to the test

May 12, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- While President Clinton was playing host at his conference on youth violence Monday, saying he and his guests were "not here to place blame, but to shoulder responsibility," the uninvited National Rifle Association was holding a news conference of its own several blocks away.

Its executive director, Wayne LaPierre, did not mince words about the White House conference and the NRA's exclusion. He called talk about new legislation to curb gun ownership and use "dishonest" and "phony." The NRA hadn't been included, he said, because Mr. Clinton was "afraid of the mirror Charlton Heston [the NRA president] and the NRA would have held up" to cast the administration as the real villain.

Mr. LaPierre's argument in a nutshell was that there were more than enough gun-control laws on the books to end the "culture of violence" in the country, but that the administration was woefully negligent in prosecuting violators. He noted that 6,000 children under age 18 came to school in the past two years with handguns in violation of laws restricting ownership by anyone their age, but the Justice Department had prosecuted only 13 juveniles.

"Passing new gun-control laws," Mr. LaPierre said, "has become a perverse form of new entertainment. People in the know already know that no one is going to be prosecuted," and that includes Mr. Clinton and criminals, he said.

"All that counts in the end is criminals all over this country with guns are walking free. In Columbine, [Colo.], those two murderers broke 18 laws on the books. You could pass 50, but the problem is, bad people still do bad things."

That the objects with which they "do bad things" are guns seems almost beside the point in the NRA view. The answer is not to try to reduce the number of guns available, the NRA says, but to step up federal prosecutions sharply, through a program known as Project Exile, which has been effective in such cities as Richmond, Va., and Rochester, N.Y.

A felon caught with a gun goes to jail for five years, with no exceptions. The NRA wants the Justice Department to spend $50 million to boost prosecutions nationwide and another $25 million to advertise the program.

Bob Walker, president of Handgun Control Inc., the anti-gun lobby, says his organization supports Operation Exile but it doesn't begin to address the problem of school violence. He calls the NRA's focus on prosecutions a dodge and contends that the gun lobby has spent millions of dollars getting legislative loopholes in anti-gun laws that undercut them.

A local matter

A Justice Department spokesman notes that most juvenile gun violations are prosecuted at the state and local levels, and that gun violence has dropped nearly 30 percent in the past six years.

Of note at the NRA news conference were the comments of Robert Delfey, president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation and an NRA ally on most issues of gun ownership. He said that he had attended a preliminary White House meeting last week but decided not to attend the big conference with Mr. Clinton, because he became convinced the administration had already made up its mind on what anti-gun legislation it wanted.

Gun show buys

But Mr. Delfey then announced his group's conditional agreement with some of Mr. Clinton's proposals, including instant background checks at gun shows, where purchasers can make easy buys, mandatory locking devices on all firearms, mandatory penalties for parents allowing access of guns to their children and -- most significantly in disagreement with the NRA -- raising the legal age for gun ownership from 18 to 21.

The NRA insists there is no crack in the solid wall of the pro-gun lobby. But such observations suggest that other members of the lobby recognize that tragedies like the Colorado shootings are mobilizing public opinion as never before for tightening the gun traffic, whether or not lack of prosecutions is the culprit, as the NRA argues.

The latest test of the gun lobby's clout, and its solidarity, comes this week in the Senate's consideration of bills on gun-show checks, raising gun ownership age, parental responsibility and restoring the three-day waiting period for purchase, which expired last fall. It will also be a test of the real impact of the Colorado shootings on senators who in the past have danced to the NRA's tune.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 5/12/99

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