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Gun Control: Only a Start

May 23, 1999

The gun control legislation passed by the U.S. Senate last week could not have been approved before the school massacre in Littleton, Colo., last month and Thursday's shootings at a high school in Conyers, Ga. But how far will gun control opponents budge each time? Must each inch of progress be measured in young lives?

It's one thing to embrace in abstract the professed right to bear arms. It's another when the abstract becomes terror, blood, torn flesh and death, especially when youngsters are both victims and perpetrators.

So it was that Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) reversed his position Thursday and voted to require background checks for all sales at gun shows. Hours earlier, a 15-year-old Georgia youth had shot six schoolmates, all of whom survived. "What really clinched it for me was when I heard about the shootings literally in my backyard," Cleland said.

What clinched it for Assemblyman Dick Floyd (D-Wilmington) the night of April 20 was watching televised scenes of the mayhem at Columbine High School. Floyd's mind flashed back to his own horrors as a soldier in Korea--the smell of blood and burned flesh. The next day, a tormented, sleepless Floyd cast his first-ever vote on a gun control bill, supporting a California limit of one gun purchase a month.

Sen. Cleland's switch on Thursday led to a 50-50 Senate tie and a dramatic deciding vote by Vice President Al Gore to limit sales at gun shows. It was a major victory in the 40-year battle to enact reasonable controls on the sale, possession and use of firearms. Senate sponsors hailed it as a triumph over the National Rifle Assn., the politically potent chief advocate of 2nd Amendment gun ownership rights.

But this was only an incremental step in the fight to elevate the rights of Americans to be free of gun violence. Winning House approval of these provisions, and much more, we hope, begins this week. Gun control advocates must enlist every resource they have, including the efforts of President Clinton, Vice President Gore and the growing voices of children's advocates, public health professionals and law enforcement agencies.

Momentum is on their side. Clinton and Gore should push for the tougher restrictions that the president proposed after Littleton, including a limit on gun sales to one a month, parental liability for children's use of guns, reinstatement of a five-day wait for a background check when needed and raising the legal age for handgun possession from 18 to 21. Ultimately, Congress should ban the sale of the cheap, unsafe handguns known as Saturday night specials.

The Cleland and Floyd epiphanies were important and dramatic, but this nation cannot afford to gain votes one at a time. The abstract is now real, and terrible, to all Americans. Congress and state lawmakers can and must act now, forcefully.

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