WASHINGTON -- Prospects for gun-control legislation gained momentum yesterday as the top two House Republicans expressed support for including gun restrictions in a juvenile crime bill, and the Senate voted to require safety devices on new handguns.
With many Americans more focused on gun control since the Colorado school massacre, the backing of House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Dick Armey suggested for the first time that such legislation could win approval, not only in the Senate but also in the House.
Hastert specifically endorsed one of the most contentious proposals pending in the Senate, a measure that would raise the minimum legal age for owning a handgun from 18 to 21.
Senate Democrats, who have already collected a string of victories during more than a week of acrimonious debate, scored again yesterday when the Senate overwhelmingly approved a plan -- which had been defeated last year -- to require that safety locks be purchased by buyers of new handguns.
The Senate vote was 78-20, with all 44 Democrats who voted favoring the safety-lock requirement, along with 34 of 54 Republicans.
Senate leaders also appeared to be nearing a bipartisan agreement to assure that gun-control legislation would come to a final vote -- a proposition that had been much in doubt.
"This is the best week we've had since 1994," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat and longtime gun-control advocate.
For Republicans it has been a fiasco. They had hoped that the shooting rampage by two teen-agers at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., would jump-start a long-stalled measure to impose harsher penalties on youthful offenders. They also wanted to move ahead on proposals to curb violence in the entertainment industry.
But they could not hold their troops in line to resist the Democratic gun-control proposals. Senate Republicans made an about-face last week on the issue of background checks for gun show sales and may find themselves in a no-win situation with constituents.
They risk alienating some gun-rights supporters in their core constituencies; yet they will likely not make enough concessions to please the suburban swing voters who favor gun control.
"Gun control was the last thing Republicans wanted to be debating," said Marshall Wittmann of the Heritage Foundation. "I just don't think they were prepared for this."
`I feel like I've been abused'
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said the Democrats had put him in a spot where he had little room to maneuver.
"If we hadn't allowed amendments to be offered" to the juvenile crime bill, Lott said, the Democratic gun-control package "would have offered one piece at a time on every bill that came along."
"I feel like I have been been abused on this subject," Lott complained. "I tried to show good faith with the Democrats, but it's obvious they just want to drag it out and play games with it."
Hastert speaks up
Hastert may have compounded Lott's difficulties with his endorsement yesterday of a proposal that that would raise the minimum age for owning a handgun. Schumer plans to introduce the measure today.
"I'm just saying 21 is basically a standard of adulthood, and there's probably a uniformity that fits there," Hastert said in an interview with the Associated Press.
Hastert also said he agreed with the Senate decision, made after the Republican flip-flop, to require that people who buy firearms at gun shows be subject to the same background checks as those who buy guns at licensed gun shops.
"I think there needs to be uniformity in what they do at gun shows and what they do in a retail business," the House speaker said in the interview.
During his first five months in the top House post, Hastert has been reluctant to dictate positions to others -- even in his own party. And he took pains in the interview to stress that he was expressing only his personal view.
No soundings on gun control, Hastert said, have been taken among the House Republican rank and file.
Armey, the House majority leader, acknowledged yesterday that gun-control measures "could be part of the solution" to the juvenile crime problem. His statement was another sign that the political winds are shifting on gun control in the wake of the Littleton tragedy and other school shootings in recent years.
A House Republican leadership aide predicted that some form of gun-control legislation would be approved in the House -- despite longtime opposition from most Republicans and even from a handful of Democrats.
"To some degree, this is cyclical," the Republican aide said. "Every few years, we go through one of these debates, the anti-gun people push too hard and there's a backlash. But generally, this is something that all sides have tried to put off as long as possible."
Littleton proved to be the "last straw," Schumer said, that made the issue impossible for the Congress to ignore any longer.