NRA a casualty of Littleton

May 17, 1999|By Sandy Grady

WASHINGTON -- Not even the marble walls of the U.S. Senate's fortress were invulnerable to the gunfire of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

It just took a while for tone-deaf Republicans to hear the gunshots.

Actually, 24 hours.

When the two teen-age psychos shot up Columbine High in Littleton, Colo., killing a dozen students and a teacher, the country was shocked. Why did it happen in an affluent suburban school? What to do?

Nothing, yawned cynics.

Puppet pols

Oh, there'd be the usual flapdoodle over violent movies, video games, a sick culture. But hand-wringing would fade. The National Rifle Association would never allow its puppet politicians to do anything useful about guns.

Charlton "Moses" Heston, gun-lobby president, was confident. So was NRA lobbyist James Baker, who prowled Senate halls arguing, "Don't give in to knee-jerk emotions. Why pass new laws when we don't enforce old ones?"

When the NRA speaks, Congressfolk listen with their wallets. In the past election cycle, gun defenders gave $3.4 million, mostly to Republicans.

Political decision

Sure, there were other voices. Some said, "Remember Littleton, do something." But the cautious warned, "Yeah, but remember Jack Brooks and Tom Foley." The once-powerful Texas congressman and top Democrat were kicked out of Washington by a vengeful NRA.

The message was etched in full-page NRA ads: "Bill Clinton and his anti-gun cronies are trying to exploit the school shootings -- contact your senator."

So fear, inertia and apathy ruled the chamber Wednesday when -- ho-hum -- the Senate killed a proposal for background checks on firearm sales at gun shows. The vote was orchestrated by Sen. Larry Craig, an Idaho Republican, who sits on the NRA board of directors.

Oh, well, deja vu, another NRA slam dunk. But it wasn't mere symbolism: The four guns that Harris and Klebold toted in the Littleton carnage had gun show histories. Dems called the 4,000 yearly gun shows uncontrolled firearm bazaars. No sale.

Buyers' remorse

Then a strange, almost unprecedented lightning storm hit the U.S. Senate -- buyers' remorse.

"We went too far," Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, told Mr. Craig.

"I want to change my vote," said Sen. Bob Smith, a New Hampshire Republican.

"We need to rethink this," said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican.

It's no accident that Mr. McCain and Mr. Smith are among Republican 2000 contenders -- a field in which Elizabeth Dole has drawn media coverage and boos by backing gun control.

Maybe Republicans could shrug off Sen. Robert Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat: "Gun shows with no checks will be a central issue in the 2000 election."

They could ignore President Clinton, who said, "For the life of me I can't understand" the Senate vote. They could kiss off Attorney Janet Reno's fusillade, "I'm stunned after the worst school shooting in history, the Senate makes it easier for felons, fugitives and young people to get guns."

But they couldn't shut out overnight fury pouring from Senate phones and fax machines. A typical response: "Didn't you people learn anything from Littleton?"

Nor could they duck polls showing 80 percent -- especially women -- want tougher gun laws. "Soccer moms don't understand why soccer dads need sawed-off shotguns," said GOP consultant Alex Castellanos.

Hindsight has a marvelously cleansing effect on senatorial minds. People's anger and Columbine High horror overwhelmed the NRA's lobbyists.

Oops, said the Senate on Thursday, a mistake.

Crooned NRA Senate cheerleader Mr. Craig, "I am making a clarification." So many Republicans had cold feet, he would "correct" his bill -- 24-hour background checks for all firearm sales at gun shows.

It whizzed through, an astonishing shift. But the NRA's bad news day wasn't over.

Another loophole

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, noted that the sale of high-speed ammunition clips were banned after a schoolyard massacre in Stockton, Calif, in 1994. But European-made clips eventually flood the U.S. market. The clips allow a gunman to trigger a firestorm without reloading.

After five futile years, Ms. Feinstein was amazed when the Senate, by 59-39, closed the loophole.

Why the pols' about-face on guns? "These school shootings aren't happening in L.A., New York, Detroit and Chicago. They're happening in our well-to-do suburbs," Ms. Feinstein noted.

That's cruel reality.

For 20 years, politicians did little about gun laws while murder rates went wild in big inner cities. But the pols were rattled by school shootings in small towns and suburbs, where middle-class white Americans, many of them Republican, vote.

When suburbanites honked, pols did an instant U-turn. Never mind the NRA's money and clout. After Littleton, who was safe?

Even in the cloistered Senate, the guns of Harris and Klebold shook the marble walls.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

Pub Date: 5/17/99

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