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Los Angeles Times Interview : Charles Schumer : Vanquishing the NRA With His Assault-Weapons Ban

May 08, 1994|Gayle Pollard Terry | Gayle Pollard Terry is an editorial writer based in the Washington bureau of The Times

WASHINGTON — Charles E. Schumer, the Brooklyn Democrat who led the surprisingly successful fight in the House of Representatives to ban 19 military-style assault weapons, is not exactly a stranger to guns or the National Rifle Assn. He won an NRA marksmanship badge and certificate for target shooting when he was a kid attending summer camp. The only target practice the tenacious Schumer takes these days is dead aim at the powerful gun lobby.

To snatch his latest victory from the supposedly certain jaws of defeat, Schumer got plenty of help from President Bill Clinton, who worked the phones. Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, a Texan and a hunter, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and other members of the Administration mounted a full-court press. More help came from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Though senators rarely deign to work the House floor, Feinstein took that step to help Schumer buttonhole elusive votes. She had a lot at stake. Feinstein was the lead sponsor of the Senate's semi-automatic assault-weapons ban, which was approved along with the rest of the comprehensive anti-crime package. That legislation must now be reconciled with the House version.

This isn't the first time the pragmatic Schumer has beaten back the politically potent gun lobby. Thanks to his political acumen and America's growing frustration with violent crime, he also prevailed last November, when he engineered an upset victory for the Brady Bill, which had languished for years in Congress. It requires a waiting period of five days between the purchase and delivery of a handgun.

Schumer maintains his crime watch from his post as chair of the Crime and Criminal Justice Subcommittee, part of the House Judiciary Committee. All crime bills must past him. But getting guns and crooks off the streets are not his only passions.

Admittedly ambitious, Schumer has his eye on a gubernatorial race in New York when Mario M. Cuomo is no longer in the picture. At 43, Schumer may seem a bit young for the state's top political job but he's always been precocious. He finished Harvard at 20 and Harvard Law School at 23. The year he got his law degree he was elected to the New York State Assembly. At 29, he was elected to Congress.

A family man, Schumer divides his time between Washington and his home base in Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife and two daughters--"the rock of my life."

Question: You won. How did you beat the odds?

Answer: There were a lot of things. A lot of sweat and hard work, some good strategizing. Also, faith, a little faith in the system that sometimes it can work.

Q: Did White House muscle help?

A: The President was invaluable. When the President starts talking about something, it makes a difference. I went to him two weeks ago and said, "The only way we can win this is if you get involved." I told him we might not win but he decided to get involved because he thought it was the right thing to do.

Q: Is the ban on assault weapons primarily symbolic?

A: It's in between symbolism and a panacea, a cure-all. It will do some good. They (assault weapons) are only 1% of the weapons out there, but according to an ATF (Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) survey, they are used in 8% of the murders. They are relatively new on the scene. So the ban actually is going to save lives.

There is also some symbolic value. The symbolism is that the NRA (National Rifle Assn.) can be beaten. That members can stand up to the NRA.

Q: Have Americans reached a critical junction on crime?

A: . . . Americans are crying out to government at all levels: Do something! It's interesting. I've felt this all along. But (Friday's) Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows this. ("By 50% to 30%, Americans think the country is on the wrong track . . . and it comes right to drugs and crime.")

. . . People are angry and dispirited about government because of a failure to do something about crime . . . . This is government's primary function--to keep us safe--and when large percentages in the country don't feel safe, they start asking: What am I paying my taxes for? What is government all about?

Q: Does this victory weaken the political grip of the NRA?

A: It speaks not so much that the NRA is weakening but the opposing forces are stronger. A member of Congress has and still does pay a price for voting against the NRA.

But now a member pays a price for voting with the NRA, too. In many districts, the price is higher when a member votes with the NRA than against the NRA. The public is outraged . . . .

Members knew when they went back to their districts their opponents would use this (a vote with the NRA), saying the members were more interested in special interests than in the general interest.

Q: Is it harder now for politicians who are against gun control to make that argument?

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