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House Passes Bill to Improve Gun-Buyer Background Checks

Control advocates say the measure will accomplish little. The vote occurs amid a deadly sniper spree and election campaigns.

October 16, 2002|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- With deadly sniper bullets whistling around Washington, the House approved a bill Tuesday to improve the database used to check gun buyers -- the first gun-regulation measure to come before Congress in more than a year.

But critics said the measure, which was supported by the National Rifle Assn., would do little to control the availability of guns. And few politicians are calling for any tougher measures in response to the spate of area shootings -- an indication of how dramatically the debate on the issue has changed in the last three years.

In 1999, after the bloody shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., Democrats led a stampede for new limits on gun purchases and activists helped stage such events as the Million Mom March. The legislative effort ultimately stalled, but it thrust gun control to the center of the 2000 presidential and congressional campaigns.

Now, by contrast, gun control has come up as a campaign issue in only a handful of contests, mostly in Maryland. And while the serial sniper attacks have brought attention to efforts to create a national system for linking bullets recovered at crime scenes to particular guns, the NRA and President Bush already have said they oppose the proposal.

Indeed, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer voiced skepticism Tuesday about the need for any new gun controls in response to the sniper fire. "How many laws can we really have to stop crime, if people are determined in their heart to violate them no matter how many there are or what they say?" he said.

The administration's stance is not surprising; more noteworthy is the response by Democrats to the current shootings.

Party leaders who three years ago were advocating new gun safety requirements, strict background checks at gun shows and other measures are now taking a more cautious approach. That is in part because Congress is near the end of its session. What's more, no one yet knows who the sniper is and what, if any, new law would prevent such a crime in the future.

But the restraint also reflects a broad consensus among Democrats that they suffered in 2000 -- in losing the presidency and failing to win control of the House -- largely because the party's embrace of gun control alienated swing voters in states such as Tennessee, Arkansas and West Virginia.

There's a broadly shared belief "that's developed about guns and the need for the Democratic Party to downplay the issue," said Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan political analyst.

The political geography of this year's campaign reinforces that caution. Most of the competitive House and Senate races are in the South or other states with large rural areas -- places where supporting gun control is politically risky.

So in Arkansas, Democrat Mark Pryor is campaigning for the Senate with mailings that note he is a gun owner and hunter; one even includes a picture of his hunting license.

Some Democrats worry that their party may have gone overboard, overestimating the clout of the NRA and jettisoning an issue that has effectively mobilized many suburban residents to vote Democratic.

"We learned the wrong lesson," said one Democratic strategist who requested anonymity. "We are craven as a party, and pretty stupid."

One of the few Democrats now campaigning on the issue is former Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, the late replacement for the scandal-tainted Democratic incumbent, Robert Torricelli, in the New Jersey Senate race. Lautenberg made a recent campaign appearance with Sarah Brady, the national gun control advocate.

In Maryland, gun control has become a key issue in the gubernatorial contest between Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a gun control proponent whose father and uncle were assassinated, and GOP Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who has supported gun-owner rights as a member of Congress.

Republicans in the House have shown some political sensitivity to the issue in the current climate. House GOP leaders last week canceled a planned vote on legislation, strongly backed by the NRA, to shield gun manufacturers from lawsuits related to gun violence.

And the decision by House GOP leaders to schedule Tuesday's vote on the bill to improve background check systems came in response to a request from Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.), who faces a tough reelection race and in whose district some of the sniper shootings occurred.

The bill is a rare breed: a measure backed by gun control advocates, such as Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), and NRA allies, like Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.). A similar coalition is trying to win quick Senate passage of the bill.

The legislation would give states a financial incentive to upgrade their law enforcement records and automate transmission of the information to the federal background check system. That database is used to screen potential gun purchasers to keep the weapons out of the hands of felons, the mentally incompetent and others who are banned from owning firearms.

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