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National Perspective | UPDATE

Clinton Asks Congress to End Impasse Over Gun Control

March 08, 2000|RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Clinton, meeting with congressional leaders in the Oval Office on Tuesday, challenged them to end a stalemate over gun control legislation by the April 20 anniversary of the Columbine High School killings.

But Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), after more than an hour with the president, said that lawmakers remain "poles apart" on gun proposals, particularly how to handle background checks of buyers at gun shows.

Without a political accommodation, new gun control measures are likely to remain stuck in Congress for the foreseeable future, fodder for debate in the presidential elections.

Nonetheless, Hatch and other key Republican and Democratic lawmakers said that they would keep trying. "We aren't going to abandon this at all," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.).

Clinton also met privately with Veronica McQueen, whose 6-year-old daughter, Kayla Rolland, was killed last week at a Michigan school, allegedly by another first-grader with a handgun. The boy reportedly used a gun kept in the crack house where he had been living. Clinton invited McQueen to the White House, and aides said that the meeting lasted about 25 minutes.

In an interview on NBC-TV's "Today" show, McQueen said: "I just don't want to see another parent have to bury another baby over this . . . , over something that is very, very preventable."

Clinton had harsh words for Congress: "I know the gun lobby is cranking up pressure on Congress again. But when first-graders shoot first-graders, it's time for Congress to do what's right for America's families."

The impasse over gun control dates back to last summer, when the House and Senate passed different versions of a juvenile crime bill. Since August, congressional negotiators have not met to resolve those differences.

"I'm not about to put everybody together so people can shout political epithets at each other," said Hatch, who chairs the House-Senate conference committee on the bill and would convene any meeting.

The Senate version, which Clinton supports, calls for background checks of buyers at gun shows, a ban on the importation of large-capacity ammunition clips and child-proof trigger locks on new guns. The House version does not include these provisions.

Clinton is also urging federal legislation to punish adults who allow guns to fall into the hands of children.

On the legislation pending in Congress, the key sticking point is a Senate amendment that would require a 72-hour waiting period for the gun show background checks. It passed only because Vice President Al Gore cast a tie-breaking vote. Some other provisions, such as safety locks, enjoy wide support.

Waiting-period critics, including the National Rifle Assn., say it would put gun shows out of business. Most shows take place on weekends and last only a day or two. It "literally makes it impossible to have gun shows," Hyde said.

According to Hyde, 95% of background checks of retail buyers at gun stores under federal law are now carried out within hours. Because of that, he has argued, a much shorter waiting period would do the job at gun shows.

But Clinton said that experience with the law demonstrates that among the 5% of prospective buyers who do not immediately check out is a disproportionate share of people who are barred from buying guns.

Clinton suggested a compromise: Buyers who pass a quick check would get their guns within 24 hours, but those whose background cannot be quickly verified would have to wait longer.

"The problem is . . . they're 20 times more likely to be turned down, so therefore, I think we have to have some provision to deal with them," Clinton said.

"I've been to these country gun shows," he added. "I know what they're like, and I understand what some of the practical questions are. But . . . with a minimum of effort, we can save lives."

It is not clear that background checks or safety locks would have prevented the Columbine tragedy or, particularly, last week's elementary school shooting.

*

Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this story.

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