House gun-control forces eager for fight

Democrats press for vote after victory in Senate


WASHINGTON -- House Democrats vowed yesterday to enact new handgun-control legislation before leaving town for a 12-day Memorial Day recess next week.

They announced their intentions after a meeting at the White House, where an emotional President Clinton urged them to make new handgun restrictions -- such as those passed this week by the Senate -- a memorial to students killed in school shootings around the country, participants said.

But a spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert said that the House would adhere to its previously announced schedule, which called for handgun legislation to reach the House floor in mid-June.

"We're going to keep to our schedule," said John Feehery, the speaker's spokesman. "What Democrats want is to score political points. They don't want to draft good, reasonable legislation."

Feehery said the House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing next week, followed by legislative drafting sessions in early June.

But Democrats who met with Clinton called for speedier action even as they acknowledged an uphill struggle in the GOP-controlled House.

"There's a very great sense of urgency we need to act now. Democrats are unanimous on the need to act this coming week," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat and co-chair of the Democratic steering committee.

Yesterday's partisan jockeying foreshadows a tussle in the House not unlike the messy Senate fight this week that culminated with Vice President Al Gore casting a tie-breaking vote on a major gun control measure.

In a setback to the gun lobby, the GOP-dominated Senate agreed to impose strict new background-check requirements on all firearm transactions and to require safety devices on all handguns.

But in the House, the majority dominates the legislative process to a degree unmatched in the Senate.

With Republicans holding a slim advantage in the House, Democrats are clearly pinning their hopes on what they believe is a sea change in public opinion -- in favor of stricter handgun controls amid the epidemic of shootings in the nation's schools.

The most recent incident, near Atlanta, occurred on Thursday -- as Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton headed for Littleton, Colo., to console members of the Columbine High School community. There, a month earlier, two gun-wielding students killed 12 classmates and a teacher before committing suicide.

Hastert has been a strong opponent of gun control in the past, but this week, after the Senate debate, he endorsed proposals to require background checks on guns sold at gun shows and to raise the minimum age for gun purchase from 18 to 21.

The Senate also approved proposals to require all handguns to be sold with trigger devices, ban juvenile possession of certain assault weapons, and prohibit the import of high-capacity ammunition clips.

California Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who participated in the White House meeting, said many House Democrats believe that the Senate legislation would be a good starting point -- while deferring more stringent measures for later. Among these would be a limit on one handgun purchase per month.

"There are other sensible things that need to be done, but they might take longer than next week," said Lofgren, a House Judiciary Committee member. "The quickest way now is to adopt what the Senate has already passed."

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