`Bug Man' calls tune on the latest gun bill

June 23, 1999|By Sandy Grady

WASHINGTON -- Tom DeLay, who made his money as an exterminator ridding Houston of varmints and vermin, showed he hasn't lost his touch for eliminating pests.

No 1999 gun law had a chance against the Texas Bug Man.

Mr. DeLay sprayed, stomped and bloviated until gun control went belly-up in the U.S. House -- victim again of gun fanatics and American amnesia.

Who's Mr. DeLay? He's the next right-wing celebrity, a nastier version of Newt Gingrich. He's overshadowing Mr. Gingrich's bland replacement, Dennis Hastert. Next to President Clinton, whom he almost fired, Mr. DeLay hates anti-gun wimps.

The Bug Man did a marvelous trick making gun control disappear. He changed the subject. He blamed schoolhouse shootings on our lewd culture. He ticked off birth control, abortion, day care, TV shows and the teaching of evolution.

"It's God, not guns," thundered Mr. DeLay. Gun control didn't have a prayer, paired with Darwin and Murphy Brown. But not to worry, mom and dad. The House mandated every school room must have a wall tablet bearing the Ten Commandments.

If a kook with an AK-47 walks into your kids' homeroom, he'll freeze and drop his Gat at the sight of "Thou shalt not kill."

Since National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston played the role in a '50's movie, this was a twin win for Moses.

The Bug Man didn't do the extermination alone. He got help from pols of both parties. Fear of the NRA's well-heeled lobbyists and its vociferous 2.8 million gun-toters was as thick as DDT fog.

The Littleton massacre? Ancient history. Blame our bang-bang attention span in the era of the Internet, MTV and CNN. It's the usual dynamic in Congress' gun brawls -- horror over a tragedy fades to apathy. The Senate in the shadow of the April 20 Littleton, Colo., shootings passed a tough gun law. Four weeks later, the House found passions to be stale and cool.

A rare insurgent was Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican, despite $9,500 in NRA largesse. "What changed me was 12 dead children and a community with a broken heart," said Mr. Tancredo, who lives six blocks from Columbine High.

Anti-gun activist

Mr. DeLay's manipulative rhetoric was nearly overmatched by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat, whose husband was killed by a gunman in 1993. "I came here because of guns. Let me leave in peace," said Mrs. McCarthy in tears. Both sides gave her a standing ovation. Then they briskly resumed work on the Bug Man's eradication of gun control.

"The NRA beat me," said Mr. Clinton, traveling abroad. Not so simple, Mr. President. The gun lobby got help from cynical Democrats. And especially "The Truck" -- Rep. John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, who was given that nickname because the old bull rolls over opponents like a loaded Peterbilt.

Mr. Dingell has a scarred memory: Friend Jack Brooks, the crusty Judiciary chairman, was knocked out in 1994 by the NRA. He fears being the next Mr. Brooks. With help from NRA pals, he cobbled together a watered-down gun bill doomed to fail.

"I don't know what my colleague is doing," wailed Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, whose district abuts Mr. Dingell's.

The gleeful NRA knew. When the Bug Man and The Truck hugged on the House floor at the end, clearly the fix was in.

There were no heroes. Why did 44 Democrats vote to scuttle the half-loaf Dingell bill? Even though it weakened checks on gun shows, it included gun-safety locks and a ban on imported, high-capacity clips.

The truth lies in smarmy politics -- Democrats maneuvering so guns could be the issue that helps them regain the House and hold the Oval Office.

Political thinking

You could hear their war cry during a 1 a.m. gun vote when Democrats chanted, "Six seats! Six seats!" -- their margin to recoup the House.

Al Gore's leather-lunged speeches echo the Dems mantra: No more Littletons. Mr. Gore will lash George W. Bush for cozying up to the gun manufacturers and the NRA.

But I doubt it's clear cut that guns will be pivotal nationally for Democrats. The South and West clutch their shooting irons.

Maybe someday guns will be registered like cars, a common-sense Utopia. But I hate to imagine mayhem so terrible it will change Congress' servile panderers.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

Pub Date: 6/23/99

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