Bad gun week for the GOP

May 24, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Probably not since the government shutdown of late 1995 have the Republicans in Congress had a worse week than the last. Their grudging and at times petulant attempts to mollify public opinion with half measures for more gun control, culminating in their defeat on the critical Senate vote on tougher background checks, has left them looking rigid and insensitive.

On top of that, they were unlucky. A month after the school shooting in Colorado, two more incidents of planned student violence in Michigan, and a second school shooting in Georgia even as the debate was in its final day, underscored their truculence, and the political price it could exact of their party at the polls next year.

Gun control

Now, over in the House, the Republicans are bracing for another Democratic push on gun control this week.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, criticized earlier for not providing leadership to his GOP colleagues on a critical vote on Kosovo, has indicated considerable give on the gun issue, even to the point of considering raising the age for gun ownership from 18 years to 21.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde has scheduled a hearing this week to take up gun-control legislation as part of its version of the juvenile crime bill.

The question is whether the House Republicans, prodded by the National Rifle Association, will stick their necks out to blunt the momentum built in the Senate for tighter measures, or think better of it now.

Throughout the Senate debate leading up to the 51-50 passage of a Democratic bill requiring background checks on all gun-show sales and other restrictive provisions, the GOP leaders in the argument let themselves be painted as tools of the gun lobby -- Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch and Sen. Larry Craig, an NRA board member.

At the outset, the Republicans and the NRA seemed to prevail, beating back a tougher Democratic proposal and passing an amendment that would have enabled unlicensed sellers to peddle their wares at gun shows without requiring a background check, and letting gun owners pawn guns and then reclaim them later without such a check.

But the public reaction, and a late awareness among some Republicans who had voted for it that they were looking like NRA puppets, led the GOP leadership to back off and offer a somewhat stronger proposal.

Continued fight

The Democrats, however, continued to fight that one, charging that even this second approach left "gaping loopholes" that would permit the easy purchase of guns by children and the unchecked or inadequately checked buys by convicted felons.

The Democrats came up with scores of tightening amendments and demanded that they be considered, as Mr. Lott fumed.

He threatened to shelve the whole juvenile crime bill that was the vehicle for the gun-control amendments, claiming the Senate had to move on to other business.

That threat in itself made Lott and his allies seem especially insensitive to the public's concern over guns in the wake of the Colorado tragedy.

Meanwhile, the new reports of more shooting spotlighted the issue and the heat mounted for action. In the end, six Republicans -- John Chafee, Mike DeWine, Peter Fitzgerald, Dick Lugar, George Voinovich and John Warner -- joined all but one of the 45 Senate Democrats to create a 50-50 tie, then broken by Vice President Al Gore.

Optimistic

Anti-gun activists are optimistically talking about an end to the NRA's grip on Congress, exerted for years through campaign contributions and threats to purge legislators who buck it.

But such talk is probably premature, considering the bankroll of the gun lobby and its determination to hold the line against further restrictions on gun sales and use.

The organization continues to argue that rather than more laws, more prosecutions under existing laws is the answer. It's a contention that in the Senate couldn't withstand the public outcry for more restrictive legislation.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

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