House Republican leaders backing gun-control bills

Democrats say GOP is delaying floor debate


WASHINGTON -- House Republican leaders announced their support yesterday for the gun-control measures passed last week in the Senate, boosting chances that the legislation -- once considered a long shot -- will become law.

Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, and other GOP leaders embraced the gun-control proposals -- including new background checks for purchases at gun shows and mandatory safety devices for handguns -- and promised they would come before the House in mid-June.

But Democrats, trying to stay on the offensive on the issue, clamored for action on the measures this week, before Congress begins a weeklong Memorial Day recess. They accused Hastert of dragging his feet to give the gun lobby time to generate opposition to the legislation.

"The speaker is stalling," said Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro. "We could pass these bills in a heartbeat if the Republican leadership would just bring them to the floor."

Still, barring a major reversal, the endorsement of Hastert and two Judiciary Committee leaders -- Chairman Henry J. Hyde, an Illinois Republican, and Republican Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida -- makes it more likely that the House, once considered a black hole for gun-control initiatives, will approve a bill similar to the Senate's.

"We will expedite this legislation, but we will not force it through the system without the proper consideration of the Judiciary Committee," Hastert said.

In stating their support for the proposals, House Republicans clearly are trying to avoid the kind of freewheeling, unpredictable debate the Senate had earlier this month, when GOP leaders seemed caught flat-footed by the strength of gun-control forces in the emotional aftermath of the massacre at a Colorado high school.

"We are going to be much more deliberate than the Senate," said McCollum, who is running for the Senate in 2000.

At issue is juvenile justice legislation to crack down on youth violence. It was heavily amended by Democrats in the Senate to include measures that seek to keep guns out of the hands of children and criminals.

Hastert opened yesterday's House session with a speech promising floor action on gun proposals by mid-June. Hyde and McCollum then announced they would hold a hearing on the issue tomorrow and early next month would draft legislation that would include Senate proposals to require background checks at gun shows and safety devices with handguns, a ban on the import of large ammunition clips and a ban on juvenile possession of assault weapons.

The GOP leaders said the bill would also contain some yet-to-be-drafted provisions to crack down on the "culture of violence," like the Senate's provisions aimed at curbing violence in the entertainment industry.

"We have witnessed in the last 25 year a coarsening of American life," Hyde said. "There is waning respect for human dignity and new contempt for authority."

While welcoming Republican leaders' endorsements, Democratic gun-control advocates argued there was no excuse for putting off House action for three weeks or more. They fear the National Rifle Association could dissuade lawmakers at home during the Memorial Day recess.

"Now is the time to act, before the forces of the status quo marshal their forces," said New York Democratic Rep. Anthony D. Weiner.

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