WASHINGTON -- Gun rights advocates scored a smashing House victory early today in their drive to prevent Congress from adopting new restrictions on gun ownership as its primary response to the recent rash of school shootings.
In a sharp rebuke to President Clinton, a bipartisan majority of 218-211 voted to weaken controls on firearms sales at gun shows that were approved by the Senate in the wake of the student massacre in Littleton, Colo.
The weakening proposal, which had the blessing of the National Rifle Association, drew the support of 173 Republicans and 45 Democrats, while 47 Republicans and 163 Democrats and the one independent voted against it.
"The restrictions are seen as pointed more at law-abiding citizens rather than criminals themselves," said Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican. "To me, the answer is not more laws on the books but better enforcement of the laws we have."
Democrats, aided by long-distance lobbying from Clinton in Europe, fought what all acknowledged to be an uphill battle to match the Senate proposals. But as their defeat became clear many Democrats chanted: "Six seats, six seats," as a way of taunting the Republicans, suggesting they could lose their six-seat majority for rejecting a popular proposal.
Polls show Americans overwhelmingly support greater restrictions on the access to guns.
"We're not taking away one's right to buy a gun except criminals," said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat elected to Congress after her husband and son were shot by a gunman on the Long Island Railroad. "We're supposed to be saving people's lives -- police officers and children."
The only two Marylanders to vote in favor of weakening the gun show restrictions were Roscoe G. Bartlett of WesternMaryland and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County.
The two other Maryland Republicans, Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County, and Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore, voted along with all four Maryland Democrats against weakening the controls.
When the House was asked on a later vote -- long after midnight -- to adopt a proposal identical to the Senate bill, the margin of opposition was even wider: 235 to 193. The gun control showdown -- which had been timed by GOP leaders too late for the evening newscasts -- came after the House voted 287 to 139 to approve broader legislation addressing aspects of American culture that contribute to youth violence.
Provisions ranged from tougher penalties for youths committing gun crimes and efforts to improve school safety to attacks on violence in videos, music and movies and attempts to reintroduce religious observations in schools. One provision would allow states to display the Ten Commandments in schools.
Majority Whip Tom DeLay, seeking to cast the Republican-led effort in a favorable light, congratulated his colleagues in the bitterly divided House for working together.
"For the last two days, we have stood up in a bipartisan way and looked at the problems of Columbine High School, recognized what those problems are and addressed them in many different ways," he said.
But DeLay couldn't resist a jab at first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, a favorite Republican symbol of liberal thinking, by referring to the theme of her book.
"It doesn't take a village to raise a child; it takes a mother and a father who live in a village that is conducive to raising a child," DeLay said. "What this bill does is recognize that you have to have structure, and limits, and you have to eliminate a culture that encourages kids to kill kids."
Most attention in the gun-control debate focused on gun shows, described by many members as a family pastime for hobbyists but where student killers in Colorado and elsewhere were able to obtain weapons without the background checks that apply to dealers in gun shops.
The proposal approved early today would reduce to 24 hours the time that background checks of gun-show buyers would be conducted, from the three business days established by the Senate bill.
Proponents argued that gun shows are normally held on the weekends and don't last for three days.
But advocates of the Senate measure contended that because gun shows are held on the weekends there isn't enough time to check records at courts that are closed Sundays.
Under the weaker proposal, the definition of gun shows would also be narrowed to apply only when at least 10 vendors and 50 guns are present. Under the provision approved by the Senate, a display of 50 guns by one vendor would constitute a gun show.
House resistance to the Senate-passed gun control measures dashes President Clinton's hopes of persuading the House to approve more far-reaching measures than the Senate did. It will also likely mean that the final bill emerging from a compromise session between the two chambers will be weaker than the version passed by the Senate.