Oklahoma Senator Blocks Widely Accepted Gun Bill

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The nation's first new firearms law in more than a decade, born of the shooting deaths at Virginia Tech, is being blocked in the Senate by a single lawmaker who says it costs too much.

The bill, which has passed the House on a voice vote, has bipartisan backing and the National Rifle Association's support. It is designed to improve the federal system for checking gun buyers' mental health history in order to block purchases by those diagnosed as mentally ill.

The lawmaker who put the hold on the bill, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), contends that the bill would create "a pathway by which individuals can lose their Second Amendment rights but no pathway through which they can gain them back if they're stable."

"I believe individual rights should be guaranteed," Coburn said.

He said he is even more concerned about the cost, which he contends would run to $2 billion over the next several years. Such legislation "is growing the government without decreasing it somewhere else," he said.

The hold is one of the Senate's most controversial procedural tactics. It allows a single lawmaker to block a vote on legislation. Coburn has holds on about 100 pieces of legislation he opposes. Using dozens of amendments, he also has stalled a raft of spending bills that he says do not explain where the funding will come from for expanded veterans' health care, bridge upgrades and children's health care.

A social conservative who also has carved a reputation for fiscal restraint, Coburn has angered many of his fellow Republicans with his stance against politically popular initiatives. Not long ago, conservative columnist George Will called him "the most dangerous creature that can come to the Senate, someone simply uninterested in being popular."

But Coburn's stance on the gun bill has its supporters. He is backed by the American Legion, whose leadership said in a statement that the law "could have the unintended consequence of denying gun rights to any veteran, especially wartime veterans, without the benefit of due process."

His most fervent ally is a smaller, lesser-known organization, the Gun Owners of America. The Virginia-based group says it has 300,000 members. It recently e-mailed them about the bill:

"URGENT ALERT!!! Anti-gun Zealots Trying To Ram Disarmament Bill Through Senate. Your ailing grandfather could have his entire gun collection seized, based only on a diagnosis of Alzheimer's (and there goes the family inheritance)."

The legislation came after mental health records indicated that the Virginia Tech shooter, student Seung Hui Cho, should have been flagged by the National Instant Check System. Legislators on both sides of the gun debate began delicate talks on fixing the system.

Pro-gun Democratic Reps. John D. Dingell of Michigan, a former NRA board member, and Rick Boucher from near Virginia Tech's Blacksburg campus, teamed up with anti-gun New Yorkers Carolyn McCarthy, a congresswoman whose husband died in the Long Island Railroad shootings, and Sen. Charles E. Schumer to establish a "system that's better for gun owners and better for law enforcement," Dingell said at the time.

Key support came from the NRA, which claims 4 million members and has battled dozens of gun-control bills in Congress. The group has lobbied for more money and a thorough scrubbing of the background-check system, which the new measure would provide.

"There is not one person legally able to buy a firearm today who would be banned under the new law," said NRA chief lobbyist Chris W. Cox. The measure is not gun control, he said. If it were, "we would withdraw our support."

The bill could come to the floor as early as this week. Schumer has been talking with Coburn and says he will not budge.

"We'll bring it to the floor. We're not going to let one member stop the will of what seems to be a large majority," Schumer said.

"If they want to debate it, I'll debate," Coburn said. "I vote for what I think is right."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company