WASHINGTON -- It looked for a while there as if the Republican leaders in the House had learned a lesson from the political criticism rained down on their Senate counterparts for seeming to be insensitive to the Colorado high school shootings.
Almost as soon as the Senate passed new gun-control measures proposed by the Democrats over the kicking and screaming of Republican members, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde announced they would back the Senate version.
It seemed that seeing a steamroller coming at them driven by public outrage over the Columbine tragedy, they were going to get out of the way.
The Republican leaders did indicate, however, that they wanted to do a little tinkering to "improve" the Senate version, which calls for background checks on gun buyers at gun shows, mandatory safety devices and other modest proposals.
The immediate interpretation of the comments by Mr. Hastert and Mr. Hyde was that they knew the Republican senators had gotten burned by too close identification with the gun lobby, headed by the National Rifle Association, and they didn't want the same thing to happen to them.
But that interpretation appears to have been premature. The House GOP leadership, with Mr. Hyde's acquiescence if not his approval, has decided to bypass the Judiciary Committee, where Mr. Hyde had intended to hold hearings as part of the process to "improve" the Senate version, and bring gun-control legislation directly to the House floor for a vote early next week.
It turns out that a major "improvement" to be proposed by the Republicans is a definition of what constitutes a gun show, subject to buyers' background checks for any criminal and mental illness record. The Senate version calls for such checks at any show at which 50 or more guns are offered for sale. The House GOP proposal would require checks only at gun shows at which at least 10 sellers take part, and only on sales finalized at the show.
The House definition of a gun show, House Democrats say, is an NRA-dictated loophole that will emasculate the legislation and is, in the words of one, "a new way to skin the cat."
They charge that the Judiciary Committee is being bypassed because the Republicans don't want to run into another Democratic buzz saw from minority-party committee members charging that the majority, even after the NRA's defeat in the Senate, remains in bed with the pro-gun organization.
Gun-control advocates in the House, hoping to capitalize quickly on the success achieved in the Senate, wanted a speedy consideration of the Senate version and vote on it in the House, but Mr. Hyde balked, insisting that the matter get a measured, responsible hearing before his committee.
As the matter was delayed, the NRA mobilized its lobbying operation to rally its troops in the House, conducting a million-dollar mail and phone-bank campaign urging House members, predominantly Republican, to support less intrusive legislation on gun ownership.
Moving the issue directly to the House floor, where the majority Republicans will have tighter procedural control than exists in the Senate, isn't likely to quiet the protesting Democrats.
They are well aware that continued television and press coverage of the Colorado shootings, and the subsequent copycat episode in Georgia, have kept public concern over gun accessibility at a high level.
President Clinton, too, after seeming reluctance to take on the NRA, has assured high visibility for the whole issue of school violence with his own admonitions not only to the gun industry, but also to moviemakers marketing gun mayhem, to place tougher curbs on the nation's gun culture.
In their efforts to trim at the margins the gun controls voted in the Senate, the House Republicans are making it easier for their political foes to label them, like the Senate Republicans, as lapdogs of the NRA. In the growing anti-gun climate, that accusation could further undermine GOP hopes of keeping control of the House next year.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.
Pub Date: 6/11/99