Senate narrowly approves GOP version of gun show sale limits

`High-caliber loopholes' mar measure, Clinton says

May 15, 1999|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Retreating from their stance earlier this week, Senate Republicans squeaked out a one-vote victory yesterday for a proposal that requires background checks of buyers at gun shows.

The proposal was approved, 48-47, after a shouting match and some last minute arm-twisting as the lawmakers struggled to gain partisan advantage in the wake of the Littleton school shootings.

Wednesday, Senate Republicans had rejected a Democratic measure to impose mandatory background checks. Then, fearful of the political consequences, many demanded a chance to craft their own version of such a bill.

But President Clinton and the Democrats complained that the Republican measure approved yesterday was so weak as to amount to a sham. Democratic supporters of stricter gun control measures, buoyed by public sentiment that they say is shifting momentum their way, vowed to keep pressuring the Republicans for further concessions.

The hostile atmosphere of the Senate's first major showdown on gun control since 1994 threatens to doom the broader legislation, which is intended to serve as a multifront attack on the problem of teen-age violence.

With scores of additional amendments pending, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott warned his colleagues that he would shelve the whole bill if they failed to agree on a plan to complete their work by early next week.

"The Democrats are choosing politics over policy," contended Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who had hoped to win bipartisan support for the Republican proposal.

McCain asserted that the Democrats would rather use gun control as a political issue for fund-raising than compromise with Republicans to pass the legislation.

At its core, the proposal the Republican-led Senate approved yesterday is similar to the measure it rejected Wednesday. It would require all dealers at gun shows -- including the roughly 40 percent who are unlicensed -- to do background checks on buyers. Current law imposes this requirement only on licensed dealers in established businesses.

"I didn't think it was necessary, but my [colleagues] wanted it," said Sen. Larry E. Craig, an Idaho Republican. "There was a public perception problem."

Democrats protested that the Republican proposal was marred by what Clinton called "high-caliber loopholes" that would drop some gun restrictions already in place. One such restriction requires pawnshops to conduct background checks before a gun can be reclaimed.

The Republican proposal is "actually worse than the current law," the president said shortly before the Senate vote. "I can't believe the Senate would make the same mistake twice."

Seven Republicans voted against the measure -- a combination of the most adamant opponents of gun control and the most ardent supporters. Two Republicans, Sens. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama and Conrad Burns of Montana, opposed the measure, then, minutes before the final tally was recorded, were persuaded to change their no votes to yes.

Shelby explained that he had suppressed his "concerns" about the proposal "to keep this bill moving forward." A spokesman for Burns said the senator "didn't understand the legislation" when he first voted on it, then changed his vote after it was explained to him.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia was the lone Democrat to vote in favor of the Republican proposal. Five other Democrats were absent.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican, seemed particularly frustrated that the furor over gun control has eclipsed the larger purposes of the underlying bill. That bill would allow prosecutors to charge as adults teen-agers who are accused of the most violent offenses. It also would grant $5 billion over the next five years to a range of prevention and enforcement programs.

Republicans have proposed to stiffen penalties for violation of existing guns. They also want to bar any juvenile convicted of a violent crime from ever being able to legally own a gun.

"I'm getting a little sick and tired of people who try to make the whole juvenile justice issue an issue about guns," Hatch complained yesterday.

When Hatch offered to clarify language in his proposal that Democrats said could allow some gun buyers to escape background checks at gun shows, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, balked.

"The gun lobbies run this Senate chamber," Schumer shouted, sending Hatch into a tight-lipped rage.

"I have insisted on making these changes so we can get rid of these phony arguments that are being made on the other side," Hatch said. "I want a juvenile justice bill. I really believe there is an effort by some in this body to never have a juvenile justice bill."

In a second Senate vote yesterday, the Republican majority defeated a Schumer proposal that would have tightened the marketing of guns over the Internet.

Pub Date: 5/15/99

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