Shots Unlikely to Reshape Gun Debate
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 26, 1998; Page A19 As Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) was walking across the Capitol plaza Friday in the aftermath of the shooting deaths of two Capitol police officers inside the building, a reporter asked whether the deaths would influence the congressional debate on gun control.
"After an incident like this, I'm sure there's going to be some reflection," said Cunningham, an opponent of gun control laws. He agreed there were "far too many guns on the streets," but said, "that doesn't mean we should take guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens."
At about the same time, gun control advocate Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.) was circulating a news release saying "this tragedy shows once again the need for responsible gun control measures," and calling on those "who regularly obstruct our efforts" to "finally agree."
Each time the nation suffers a high-profile shooting incident from the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in 1981 and the schoolyard deaths in recent months to Friday's killings the debate over gun control is joined anew. And each time, with a few rare exceptions, consensus eludes the lawmakers.
The Friday incident occurred just days after the Senate handily defeated two measures intended to make it more difficult for children to obtain weapons. One, sponsored by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), would have required new guns to have trigger-lock mechanisms. That amendment to the Commerce, State, Justice appropriations bill garnered 39 supporters.
The second measure, sponsored by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), would have made parents liable for damages if they left firearms about in such a way as to make them accessible to children. Only 31 senators voted for that measure.
Any gun control effort focused on making it less likely that handguns would be available for use or could be obtained by someone like the man charged with the Capitol killings, Russell Eugene Weston Jr., would be even more difficult to craft and to pass. Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), who broke with fellow conservatives and supported two of the few gun measures to have succeeded the Brady Bill regulating handgun purchases and a ban on the import of certain assault weapons doubted that any law or regulation could have prevented Friday's events.
"No law is going to stop a crazed person," Coats said.
But the incident may well spark another effort this week to pass the trigger-lock and parental liability amendments by adding them to the Treasury, Postal appropriations bill.
The senators "don't want to legislate based on one tragedy," a Kohl aide said yesterday, "but there may be more attention paid to these issues because now we have had a tragedy in our own home."
Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) noted that the attack might prompt lawmakers to reassess whether they've done enough to control the proliferation of guns in the country, even if legislating a solution to the problem is difficult.
"It's still going to raise the question. There's too many guns out there," McDermott said.
He agreed with Coats that, even with tighter security or stricter gun laws, it would still have been impossible to avert Friday's attack.
"How would you have prevented that from happening?" McDermott said, adding that it appeared the gun Weston allegedly used had been taken from his father. "That's the dilemma of our society at the moment. We've said anyone can buy a gun and not be responsible for how it's used. If you leave it lying around and someone takes it, you're not responsible."
Bowing to the legislative strength of the National Rifle Association and its opposition to gun control, gun control advocates have focused in recent years on legislation narrowly tailored to a specific goal, such as keeping children or criminals from obtaining guns. Some see technological advances coded locks or "smart guns" that can only be fired by their owners as the key to reducing handgun violence.
But the new arguments won't work, said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, which advocates banning handguns. The debate over "pie-in-the sky" advances and "jimcracks and doodads" won't go anywhere, he said, because "these things don't exist."
"There's a pattern that after high-profile shootings, people look for a quick fix surrounding the event," he said, when the problem is "the wide range of weapons available to citizens."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company