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  •   Senate Backs Child-Safety Gun Devices

    By Helen Dewar
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, May 19, 1999; Page A1

    The Senate voted overwhelmingly yesterday to require that all handguns be sold with child safety devices or secure storage containers, marking another significant concession by Republicans in response to a public outcry over the school shootings in Littleton, Colo.

    The proposal was approved, 78 to 20, as part of a broader bill to curb juvenile crime, with a majority of Republicans joining all Democrats in voting for it. A similar proposal garnered only 39 votes last year.

    "I think the horror that came about because of what happened in Littleton has had its effect," said Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), who co-sponsored the proposal with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.).

    In light of mounting support for action on gun control, Senate Republicans appeared to back away from earlier threats to shelve the youth crime bill -- and with it the gun proposals -- unless the legislation were finished by nightfall. But they continued to warn Democrats that the bill could be set aside if they don't whittle back their wish list of demands on guns, and the ultimate fate of the measure remained in doubt.

    Shaken by demands for stronger gun laws in the wake of the Columbine High School shootings last month, Senate Republicans have already abandoned their opposition to background checks at gun shows and curbs on sales of high-capacity ammunition clips. They also are considering other compromises.

    In a further demonstration of the shootings' effect on gun control politics, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) indicated yesterday he supports mandatory background checks for all sales at gun shows and suggested raising the age for legal purchase of a handgun from 18 to 21. The new speaker had previously opposed major gun control measures.

    The Senate took action as a Washington Post/ABC News Poll showed overwhelming public support for some of the gun control measures at issue. The poll showed that 89 percent of Americans support background checks on people buying guns at gun shows and that 75 percent support trigger locks on all stored guns. Overall, roughly two-thirds of those polled support stricter gun control laws, compared with one-third who oppose them, the poll showed.

    In addition, 39 percent said they trust Democrats to do a better job of handling gun control issues, compared with 31 percent who said they trust Republicans. Twenty-two percent said they trust neither party.

    President Clinton praised the Senate's vote on the gun safety devices and thanked Hastert for his comments. "The Senate should likewise put progress over politics and give its strong backing to these reasonable measures to keep guns out of the hands of children and criminals," Clinton said.

    Under the Kohl-Chafee proposal, trigger locks or other safety devices, such as locked storage containers, would have to be sold with all handguns, new or used, that are handled by licensed dealers. Senate aides estimated this would include 2 million to 3 million handgun transactions a year.

    Gun buyers would not be required to use the devices but, as an incentive to do so, would be offered limited immunity from liability for civil damages if the gun winds up being used in a crime.

    The proposal includes no standards for the safety devices. Kohl argued that standards were unnecessary because the "marketplace would sort out" the poor devices.

    But some gun control groups, including the Violence Policy Center, expressed concern about the immunity provision and the lack of standards and expressed hope they would be tightened in the legislative process.

    In other votes yesterday, the Senate agreed to stiffen penalties for crimes committed by gang members and for crimes committed by people wearing body armor. It also voted to restore states' powers to regulate interstate shipments of alcohol and to require adult signatures for receipt of interstate shipments of alcohol.

    The Senate also voted, despite some constitutional objections, to allow prayers at memorial services held on school grounds when killings have been involved.

    On the other side of the Capitol, Hastert indicated he was open to "uniformity" in background checks at gun shows and raising the age for legal purchase of a handgun.

    The Senate voted last week to require the checks at gun shows, although Democrats contend that the Republican proposal was riddled with loopholes, including an exception for gun redemptions at pawnshops. Senate Democrats also hope to offer an amendment that would raise the age for possession of non-sporting guns to 21. Hastert voted against key gun control measures in the early 1990s, including establishing a waiting period for handgun purchases and banning certain types of assault weapons, and emphasized that he was speaking for himself, not the rest of the Republican leadership.

    He said he expects that gun control will be considered as part of a juvenile justice bill, just as it is in the Senate. The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to begin considering the bill today. Democrats said they intend to offer gun control amendments, but Republicans plan to reject them on technical grounds. Gun proposals could be considered later in the process, however.

    Hastert said he and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) have agreed to see if they can work together on a response to the Littleton shootings, which aides said included creation of a bipartisan task force on youth violence.

    Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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