WASHINGTON -- Facing a rebellion in their ranks, Senate Republicans reversed field yesterday and endorsed a drive to require background checks for all firearms purchases at gun shows.
Their sudden change of heart came one day after Republicans helped reject a similar measure.
Yesterday, several Republicans told their leaders that that vote created a potential political disaster.
They warned of the perils of opposing a popular gun control measure so soon after the Colorado school massacre, which focused attention on the availability of guns.
Sen. Larry E. Craig, an Idaho Republican who was the chief opponent of mandatory checks and who had persuaded his Republican colleagues Wednesday to support a voluntary system instead, explained yesterday that he was willing to support mandatory checks "now that we have protected the rights of law-abiding citizens."
Craig said his new proposal, scheduled for a vote today, would require unlicensed dealers at gun shows -- who make up about 40 percent of the dealers there -- to conduct background checks of purchasers.
Current law requires only licensed gun dealers to conduct such checks.
But unlike the Democratic measure rejected Wednesday, Craig's measure would prohibit keeping records of background checks where gun purchases are approved.
It would also require that the check be completed within 24 hours, instead of the three days favored by the Democrats.
"There was a realization that there was a loophole that had to be closed," said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who was among those who insisted yesterday that background checks at gun shows should be mandatory.
Democrats complained that the Craig substitute was a sham that contains many loopholes. But they were nonetheless pleased at the Republican reversal.
"He got caught weakening the gun laws," Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, said of Craig, a member of the board of the National Rifle Association.
"A lot of [Republicans] got sucked in and got upset."
Bid for second chance
Yesterday, several Republican senators demanded another chance to support some kind of requirement that the checks be mandatory.
"I defend the Second Amendment for law-abiding citizens to bear arms, but not for nuts and crooks," said Sen. Gordon Smith, an Oregon Republican who was among those who wanted to change his vote to show his support for background checks.
"This is something our country needs."
Adopting a much more conciliatory tone toward gun control measures overall than it had shown Wednesday, the Republican-led Senate also voted 96-2 to close a loophole that allows juveniles to own semiautomatic weapons and large-capacity ammunition clips.
More surprisingly, a sizable share of Republicans bucked the NRA to back a Democratic proposal that would ban the importation of large-capacity ammunition clips.
The proposal was then accepted by voice vote.
"What a nice surprise," exclaimed Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who has been trying for five years to enact the importation ban.
A spokesman for the NRA said the gun lobby had opposed the Feinstein proposal because it is "cosmetic" and "meaningless."
Keeping of records
As for the background checks, the NRA agreed to accept the new proposal so long as no records of the inquiries are made -- at gun shows or anywhere else, said Bill Powers, an NRA spokesman.
"We'll have to see what actually passes," he added.
Craig and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott sought to characterize their about-face yesterday as merely a "technical correction." But other sources within the Republican ranks said Lott had left too much control of the delicate political issue to Craig.
Senators were reacting yesterday in part to headlines across the nation that trumpeted a major victory for the gun lobby Wednesday despite evidence that some of the guns used in the Littleton school shooting had been purchased at a gun show.
According to a Newsweek poll conducted after the shooting, 87 percent of the respondents said they supported a requirement for background checks for people who want to buy explosives and firearms at gun shows.
Yet Wednesday, by a 51-47 vote cast largely along party lines, the Senate rejected a proposal by Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, to apply the same background check requirements to unlicensed gun show purchases that now apply to all other gun sales.
Instead, the Senate voted 53-45 for Craig's voluntary background checks, which were supported by the NRA.
, `Simply no excuse'
President Clinton said earlier yesterday that there was "simply no excuse for letting criminals get arms at gun shows they can't get at gun stores."
"For the life of me," Clinton said, "I can't figure out how" the Senate could cast a vote against mandatory background checks.
But Smith and other Republican senators, led by McCain, a presidential contender, were demanding another chance to reconsider the background-check issue even while the votes were being cast Wednesday.