Congress conjures illusion of gun control

Aiming low: Will gun lobby continue to frustrate real reform efforts from a conflicted Congress?

May 28, 1999

DESPITE narrow passage by the U.S. Senate of a modest gun-control measure last week, Congress appears as conflicted as ever on the handgun issue.

It took not only the murderous rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado but a second shooting episode at a school near Atlanta to squeeze a gun-control bill through the Senate -- by just one vote. Even then, debate was marred by another round of partisan quibbling that almost seemed to mock the victims.

On a 51-50 vote, the Senate approved criminal and mental-health background checks of those making purchases at gun shows. President Clinton had called these events "illegal arms bazaars" for criminals and gun-runners.

The Senate bill also requires the sale of trigger locks with all handguns and a ban on imports of large-capacity ammunition clips.

Similar sensible approaches have been repulsed in the past.

Does the Senate vote mark a dramatic shift in congressional attitude?

Hardly. Conservative lawmakers have not had a collective gun-control epiphany. These provisions are more refuge than breakthrough.

The irony is that even before the latest high school shootings, polls showed as much as 80 percent of the electorate favoring a crackdown. Women, in particular, are telling poll takers they want something done about the avalanche of guns in U.S. society.

Still, Senate Republicans were unable to find enough GOP supporters to pass the gun show measure. Vice President Al Gore had to cast the tie-breaking vote, a boost for his presidential ambitions.

Why were GOP senators so far out of position? The National Rifle Association poured $3.4 million in the last election cycle into political campaigns, most of it for Republicans. The GOP base includes conservative defenders of an unfettered right to bear arms.

Some Democrats in the House are hardly profiles in courage, either. They want to recapture control of the House and fear the opposition of the NRA could prevent that.

This bipartisan quavering has turned the discussion into a wearisome give-and-take that adds up to little more than tokenism.

In its first incarnation, the gun show amendment would have made background checks voluntary -- and civil liability protection would have been offered to the sellers. What a joke. That inane approach was recommended by Sen. Larry E. Craig, an Idaho Republican and a member of the NRA's board of directors. He was also the bill's floor leader.

The amendment was rewritten and passed, but only barely. Now the Senate-passed bill must clear the House of Representatives, where pro-gun sentiment runs high. House leaders have endorsed the Senate bill, but will Republicans still try to water down this already weak reform?

What was encouraging about the Senate discussions was the leadership of "gunners" such as Vermont Democrat Patrick J. Leahy, who urges sensible, moderate incrementalism. Mr. Leahy has voted against many gun control laws; he now acknowledges the need for real reform. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert is taking a similar position.

Congress and the world of gun sellers might find a useful lesson in the decision of a gun dealer in Colorado. In March, he refused to sell a machine gun to one of the Columbine shooters. Such conscientious, individual decision-making is essential, but cannot be relied upon.

Background checks will help, though they are not enough. Surely more carnage is not necessary to underscore the need for more dramatic remedies.

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