WASHINGTON — House Republican leaders Tuesday announced their support for the gun control measures passed last week in the Senate, boosting chances that the legislation--once considered a longshot--will become law.
Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and other GOP leaders embraced the gun control proposals--including new background checks for purchases at gun shows and mandatory safety devices for handguns--and promised that they would come before the House in mid-June.
But Democrats, trying to stay on the offensive on the issue, clamored for action on the measures this week before Congress begins a weeklong Memorial Day recess. They accused Hastert of dragging his feet to give the gun lobby time to generate opposition to the legislation.
"The speaker is stalling," said Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.). "We could pass these bills in a heartbeat if the Republican leadership would just bring them to the floor."
Still, barring a major reversal, the endorsement of Hastert and two Judiciary Committee leaders--Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) and Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.)--makes it more likely that the House, once considered a black hole for gun control initiatives, will approve a bill similar to the Senate's.
"The House will [pass] trigger locks [and] background checks at gun shows . . . " Hastert said. "We will expedite this legislation but we will not force it through the system without the proper consideration of the Judiciary Committee."
In stating their support for the proposals, House Republicans clearly are trying to avoid the kind of free-wheeling, unpredictable debate that took place in the Senate earlier this month, when GOP leaders seemed caught flat-footed by the strength of gun control forces in the emotional aftermath of the massacre of 15 people at a Colorado high school.
"We are going to be much more deliberate than the Senate," said McCollum, who is running for the Senate in 2000.
At issue is juvenile justice legislation to crack down on youth violence. It was heavily amended by Democrats in the Senate to include measures that seek to keep guns out of the hands of children and criminals.
Hastert opened Tuesday's session of the House with a speech promising floor action on gun proposals by mid-June. Hyde and McCollum then announced that they plan a hearing on the issue Thursday and in early June would draft legislation that would include Senate proposals to require background checks at gun shows and safety devices with the sale of handguns, a ban on the import of large ammunition clips and a ban on juvenile possession of assault weapons.
The GOP leaders said the bill also would contain some yet-to-be-drafted provisions to crack down on the "culture of violence," like the Senate's provisions aimed at curbing gratuitous violence in the entertainment industry.
"We have witnessed in the last 25 years a coarsening of American life," Hyde said. "There is waning respect for human dignity and new contempt for authority."
Although they welcomed Republican leaders' endorsements, Democratic gun control advocates argued that there is no excuse for putting off House action for three weeks or more. They fear that the National Rifle Assn. is already mobilizing opposition and could make headway while lawmakers are home for the Memorial Day recess.
"Now is the time to act, before the forces of the status quo marshal their forces," said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.).
Democratic gun control advocates plan to turn up the heat on Republicans to act this week by offering gun control amendments to unrelated bills on the House floor, by voting against recessing for Memorial Day unless gun control measures have been passed and by collecting signatures on a petition to force these provisions out of committee. But none of those steps will succeed unless some Republicans cross party lines and no GOP lawmakers have signaled a willingness to do so.
Antipathy to gun control always has been stronger in the House, where about 179 members received campaign contributions from the NRA in 1997-98, than in the Senate.
Even Democrats are not wholly united on the issue. Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), a longtime NRA ally, has warned his leadership about the potential political fallout for rural and Western Democrats if the party pushes too hard on gun control. And Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, opposes the strategy of trying to attach gun control amendments to appropriations bills.
Times staff writer Edwin Chen contributed to this story.