House moves to weaken bill on gun control

Vote expected to reduce controls on firearms shows Youth violence targeted

June 18, 1999|By KAREN HOSLER | KAREN HOSLER,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Gun rights advocates moved toward a victory in the House last night 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 votes late night, a bipartisan majority was expected 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 showdown 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."

Some members despaired that after their lengthy debate, the House might have made little progress in the battle to curb juvenile crime, thanks to intense pressure from the gun lobby, the entertainment industry and other special interests that are resisting new restraints. Polls show that a majority of Americans favor further gun control restrictions.

Several efforts to protect children from violent material in videos, music and movies were defeated. Some steps that were approved -- such as tougher penalties for minors who commit violent offenses -- might have limited effect because federal jurisdiction over juveniles is limited largely to Native Americans on reservations.

"I'm afraid we're going to conclude this and find we've accomplished nothing," said Rep. Tim Roemer, an Indiana Democrat.

But Rep. Steve Buyer, an Indiana Republican, said that at a minimum, the Littleton shootings had unleashed the momentum that helped speed passage of a $1.5 billion juvenile block grant program to the states that has been languishing for three Congresses.

"There's money here for prevention programs, for prosecutors, for courts and juvenile placement officers," Buyer said. "We've passed it three times in the House and couldn't get it through the Senate until they added the gun control stuff to it."

Lawmakers also approved a variety of smaller measures intended to reduce teen-age gun crimes, including an incentive to states to suspend the driver's license of an offender younger than 21 who illegally possesses a firearm or commits a crime with one.

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.

Proposals that appeared to have the most support in the House 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.

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 just one vendor would constitute a gun show.

The House is also expected to defeat a Senate-passed requirement that gun sellers keep records of sales so that weapons used in crimes can be traced.

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.

Clinton, who spent much of the day calling wavering House members from Paris on his way to the economic summit that opens today in Cologne, did not appear to be making much headway, legislators from both sides of the issue said.

"A lot of people remember that the president's machinations in 1994 helped cost the Democrats control of the House," said Rep. John D. Dingell, the Michigan Democrat whom Republican leaders allowed to take the lead in weakening the gun control measures.

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