Democrats forging odd alliance with GOP on guns

House faction seeks to weaken restrictions

June 16, 1999|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In an odd twist in the raucous gun-control debate, a faction of Democrats who say the issue helped cost them control of the House in 1994 is expected to join with Republicans to weaken firearms restrictions passed by the Senate.

Grappling to shape its response to the Colorado school shootings, the Republican-led House is facing a showdown in the next two days on legislation intended to curb juvenile violence.

Some members of both parties suggest that the legislation could have as much effect on congressional elections as did the gun curbs adopted in 1994.

Among them is Rep. John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who, after nearly 45 years in the House, is his party's most senior member in Congress.

Dingell has informally joined forces with the House Republican whip, Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, to back an alternative to the Senate restrictions on gun-show sales. This alternative has the blessing of the National Rifle Association.

Dingell, long one of the fiercest advocates of gun rights in the House, has offered himself as chief sponsor of the NRA-backed gun-show alternative. He has told DeLay that he expects to deliver 40 or 50 Democratic votes.

When combined with the Republican majority that DeLay is likely to produce, the alternative proposed by Dingell will pass, he predicted yesterday.

Meanwhile, Republicans will sponsor less objectionable gun-control measures, as well as proposals intended to protect children from violent images in the entertainment industry.

"It's a deft political move" by the Republicans, said Rep. James P. Moran Jr., a Virginia Democrat and gun-control advocate who predicted that Dingell's proposal would succeed.

"This way, the Democrats get blamed for weakening gun control, but Republicans get credit for addressing the problem," Moran said.

A `downside' for GOP

Yet some Republicans say they are not certain there is a safe route for their party out of this emotionally charged debate. They say no measure Republicans could pass would wrest the gun-control issue from the Democrats. And almost any legislation could alienate the gun-rights activists who are part of a key Republican constituency, donate money to political campaigns and work hard to turn out voters.

"This issue has only a downside for Republicans," said Rep. Joe Scarborough, a Florida Republican. "Passage of any proposal won't help us with the dreaded soccer moms; all it does is inflame our base and endanger the Republicans who voted for it."

He added, "We still don't know how to run this House."

Members of both parties remain deeply divided over the relatively modest gun-control provisions passed last month by the Senate that are intended to curb access to guns by young people. Though national polls show that a majority of Americans support some restrictions on the availability of guns, large pockets of opposition remain in many congressional districts in Southern, Western and rural regions.

Republican leaders struggled last night to settle on a procedure for debating and voting on the legislation today and tomorrow. The Rules Committee sifted through scores of proposed amendments. Yet the substantive differences between the competing gun-show proposals that have attracted the most attention are much smaller than their political symbolism would suggest.

One House proposal is nearly identical to the Senate gun-show provision, which is the most contentious feature of a broader juvenile justice bill. The House provision would extend to gun-show purchases the same rule on background checks that applies to customers who buy firearms from licensed retail dealers.

Buyers of guns would have to submit to instant checks to make sure they have no record of criminal behavior or mental instability. If the information wasn't immediately available, law enforcement authorities would have up to three business days to complete it. Gun shows would be defined as any event where 50 or more firearms were offered or exhibited for sale.

Dingell's alternative would narrow the definition of gun shows and limit to 24 hours the time limit for the completion of a background check before a sale could be completed.

Leeway to vote as they please

With only a six-vote Republican edge in the House, Republican and Democratic leaders are maneuvering to please their principal constituencies, even while giving their members flexibility to vote the way they think will best ensure their re-election.

DeLay and other Republican leaders say they are taking pains to provide House members with a variety of alternative proposals and are applying no pressure. Up to 30 moderate Republicans, including Reps. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County and Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore, are expected to support a Democratic gun-show proposal similar to the Senate bill's.

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