Senate rejects addition to gun controls

Background checks at gun shows will be voluntary, not mandatory

May 13, 1999|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Resisting the drive for tighter gun controls in the wake of the Colorado shootings, the Senate refused yesterday to require background checks for firearms purchasers at gun shows.

Powered largely by its Republican majority, the Senate voted 51-47 to defeat a proposal to impose such mandatory background checks. The measure had the backing of the White House as well as of some gun industry groups, but it was opposed by the politically powerful National Rifle Association.

"I do not want to impinge on the rights of private citizens," said Sen. Larry E. Craig, an Idaho Republican who was the chief opponent of the measure.

Instead, the Senate adopted, 53-45, an alternate measure, sponsored by Craig, that calls for voluntary background checks at gun shows. Democrats contend that this measure would also repeal laws that require background checks when guns are reclaimed at pawnshops and that bar gun sales across state lines.

The rejection of the mandatory background checks -- considered among the most popular of a dozen gun control measures to be offered this week -- signaled that the political dynamic on the gun issue might not have been changed much by the school massacre in Littleton, Colo.

"This shows that the U.S. Senate has learned very little from Littleton," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat.

Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, both Maryland Democrats, voted with the overwhelming majority of their party to require the background checks, and against the Craig alternative for voluntary background checks.

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat who was the chief sponsor of the proposal for mandatory checks, argued that he was merely trying to close a loophole in existing gun laws, which require background checks for gun buyers almost everywhere but at gun shows.

He pointed to evidence that some of the weapons used in the Littleton rampage were purchased at a gun show by a girlfriend of one of the two gunmen.

"See what happened in Colorado -- those guns traveled their way through gun shows to get into the hands of the kids" who murdered a dozen classmates and a teacher, Lautenberg said. "This is an unacceptable condition."

The NRA had lobbied heavily against the proposal, contending that it would ruin a pastime enjoyed by millions of American families by imposing onerous regulations so broadly as to affect almost any group of gun enthusiasts.

"If you look at the definition, if there's two people present and 50 guns: that's a gun show," said James Baker, an NRA spokesman. "That has nothing to do with crime."

But earlier yesterday, the Senate quietly adopted, without a vote, a Democratic proposal calling for a federal study of marketing practices used by the gun industry to attract young people.

The surprise acquiescence of Republican leaders to such a study came after its chief sponsor, Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, displayed advertisements for a shotgun from the "Beretta Youth Collection" in an NRA magazine that boasted: "An exciting bold designer look that is sure to make you stand out in a crowd."

Concluding a second day of debate on a measure aimed at curbing teen-age violence, the Senate also voted 98-0 to waive antitrust laws to allow the movie, video, music and Internet industries to adopt minimal standards for material available to children.

These voluntary guidelines would be "used to alleviate some of the negative impact of material with violence and sexual contact inappropriate for children that is so pervasive today," said Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican who was the lead sponsor.

Brownback's amendment to the juvenile crime bill also calls for a study of the marketing practices used by the entertainment industry to attract youthful buyers.

President Clinton, meanwhile, also made a play yesterday for the anti-crime spotlight with the final award of grants to complete his pledge in the 1994 crime bill to provide money for 100,000 new police officers. About 50,000 of the officers have made it to the streets so far, the White House says.

The entire 100,000 new officers should be on the beat by 2002, said Bruce Reed, Clinton's domestic policy adviser. Baltimore's share is 580 officers, financed partly with local money.

Clinton unveiled a new crime bill yesterday that would provide money for an additional 50,000 officers -- ultimately bringing the total to 150,000. But prospects for that proposal appear dim, given that at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue yesterday, the Senate rejected a Democratic proposal to pay for 25,000 new police officers to be used primarily in schools.

Pub Date: 5/13/99

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