Members of the House play a zero-sum game

Gun control: Lawmakers defy their constituents in the name of partisan politics and the gun lobby.

June 22, 1999

LAST WEEK'S votes on gun control in the U.S. House of Representatives represent a new low in the politics of cynicism and nullification.

Faced with the modest efforts by the U.S. Senate to check the criminal and mental background of gun purchasers at gun shows, the House first weakened the measure and then killed it outright.

Symbolically, at least, the House's response to the massacre at Columbine High in Littleton, Colo., turned out to be approval of a measure that allows posting of the Ten Commandments in schools. Its action had everything to do with fear of the National Rifle Association and little to do with the problem: too many guns that are too easily obtained.

After appearing ready to lead members toward a constructive approach, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert allowed the pro-gun majority whip, Tom DeLay, to handle the issue. With the help of a veteran Democrat, John D. Dingell -- a former NRA board member -- Mr. DeLay contrived a set of amendments that gun control opponents said went too far and supporters thought were a mirage.

Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who wants a more moderate image, voted for some of the control measures and against the provision allowing display of the Ten Commandments. His GOP allies contradict themselves, he says: They invite a government role on religious questions but bar it on the gun issue.

The Baltimore County Republican voted for the background checks included in the Dingell compromise. This is an improvement in current law in that private dealers may sell guns now at gun shows without obtaining these checks -- an outrageous loophole. But the Dingell amendment had a poison pill: It reduced the time allowed for the checks from three business days to 24 hours, weakening restrictions already imposed on licensed gun sellers.

Mr. Ehrlich says he took a risk on this vote and several others, which may be seen as anti-gun. He must be prepared to take that risk again -- perhaps even to propose his own approach to the background checks he supports.

Lawmakers who want real action -- and not just a new image -- must recognize that gun control opponents will never be happy with any effort to build common sense into the equation.

Pub Date: 6/22/99

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