Senate passes crime bill

Gore vote breaks tie on measure to impose curbs on gun shows

A defeat for the NRA

$5 billion legislation fights teen violence

shootings as backdrop

May 21, 1999|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Hours after another school shooting, Democratic gun control advocates in the Senate scored a major political victory yesterday as Vice President Al Gore cast the tie-breaking vote for a measure to impose stricter curbs on gun show purchases.

The success of the Democratic measure -- aided by the support of six Republicans -- was capped last night by a 73-25 vote of bipartisan Senate approval for an overall juvenile crime bill to which the gun show curbs were attached.

The $5 billion legislation, packed with an array of approaches for combating teen violence, would make it easier to prosecute youthful offenders as adults, provide new money for juvenile courts and prevention programs, and commission a study of the effects of violence in the entertainment industry on child development.

Yesterday's moment of high drama -- with nearly all 100 senators clustered around clerks, tallying the 51-50 vote -- marked only the fourth time that Gore has had to exercise his constitutional privilege as vice president to break a Senate tie.

The Senate action came on a day that a 15-year-old boy shot and wounded six students at his high school in Conyers, Ga. And it came exactly one month after the school massacre in Littleton, Colo., focused attention on teen violence and gave momentum to gun control advocates.

"We are reminded again by the fresh tragedy today that until we get more control in a sensible way on the availability of guns in our society, these tragedies will continue," Gore said, savoring the chance to seize the moment on a popular issue and perhaps give his lackluster presidential campaign a boost.

Congressional action now shifts to the House, where Republican leaders canceled two committee voting sessions yesterday at which Democrats, including Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, had planned to offer gun control proposals.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, promised the Democrats a chance to debate and vote on gun control issues by mid-June. But gun control advocates say they might try to press the issue sooner.

Senate Republican leaders, who had failed to keep members from defecting during two weeks of often anguished debate on the bill, said the gun-related measures approved yesterday would have little effect on youth violence.

"What we need to do is to enforce the laws dealing with the underlying causes of the violence in our young people and in our schools," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. "And then, whether it's a butcher knife, a bomb or a gun, the problem is taken care of."

The National Rifle Association was caustic in its criticism of the legislation. "It's more made-for-television lawmaking," the NRA said in a statement. Referring to the Clinton administration, the NRA added: "Now they want more gun laws they won't enforce."

A steady erosion of support for gun rights has been evident throughout the debate on the juvenile crime bill. Senators have struggled to read and to respond to the public mood in the aftermath of the Colorado shootings.

Supporters of the proposal to require that everyone who buys a weapon at gun shows undergo a background check brushed aside efforts by Republican leaders to grant concessions that fell short of Democratic demands. The Democrats criticized Republican loopholes that they said would allow easy access to guns for young people, criminals and the mentally ill.

For some senators, the shootings in Georgia clearly accelerated the momentum already moving in favor of stricter gun control.

Sen. Max Cleland, a Georgia Democrat, was the only senator to change his position on the gun show proposal since the Senate narrowly defeated it last week. Cleland said he had essentially decided on Wednesday to switch but that yesterday's incident banished any lingering doubts.

"In the middle of the Senate, getting ready to cast my vote `Aye,' I thought: `This is a rare moment here. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt I'm doing the right thing, for the right reason.'

"It was a high school shooting in my own back yard in Georgia that really made me convinced that it was the right thing to do," Cleland said.

The only Democrat who voted against the proposal was Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, who encountered heated criticism in his home state after he supported gun control proposals several years ago.

The six Republicans who broke ranks to support the gun show curbs were: Sens. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, John W. Warner of Virginia, John H. Chafee of Rhode Island, Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois and Mike DeWine and George V. Voinovich, both of Ohio.

Baucus and all six Republicans had voted for the same proposal when it was defeated last week.

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