Senate Backs New Gun Control, 51-50
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 21, 1999; Page A1
With Vice President Gore casting a rare tie-breaking vote, the Republican-controlled Senate yesterday approved a Democratic proposal to require background checks at gun shows, concluding a tumultuous week-long struggle that brought gun control forces their first big victory in five years.
"This is a turning point for our country," Gore said after the suspenseful roll call. The action reversed a close vote last week rejecting the Democratic proposal in favor of a milder Republican alternative.
The Senate then approved, 73 to 25, a broader juvenile justice bill that included the gun show provision and a variety of other gun initiatives, among them one requiring that handguns be sold with child safety devices and another to ban importation of high-capacity ammunition clips.
The Senate's 51-to-50 vote on gun shows embarrassed the Senate's Republican majority, which made concession after concession to stave off defeat on gun issues since the Littleton, Colo., school massacre, only to lose to the Democrats on the vote that mattered most.
Even some Republicans conceded they miscalculated from the start: first by underestimating the momentum that gun control would get from the Littleton shootings, then by miscalculating sentiment for it within their own ranks and finally by coming up with halfway measures that boomeranged when Democrats pounced on what they described as "gaping loopholes." A "debacle," said one GOP senator.
Democrats also strengthened their prospects by focusing on proposals that could win, such as gun shows, and bypassing other more contentious aspects of President Clinton's gun control agenda, such as limiting weapon sales to one per month.
The Senate's experience appeared to have a galvanizing effect on the House, where GOP leaders promised yesterday to hold gun votes by mid-June and Democrats demanded action even sooner. "We need to tighten current laws to make it more difficult for kids to get guns," Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said in a speech to the House.
As finally approved, the Senate gun proposal, sponsored by Democrats Frank R. Lautenberg (N.J.) and Bob Kerrey (Neb.), would require criminal background checks for all sales at gun shows and for persons who seek to redeem their own guns at pawn shops. It was only slightly changed from an earlier version that was rejected last week by a vote of 51 to 47.
The Lautenberg-Kerrey proposal superseded a less reaching Republican proposal, approved only minutes before, that had been drafted in hopes of keeping wavering GOP senators from voting for the Democratic version, a strategy that clearly failed.
The vote was a stunning reversal for the National Rifle Association and the biggest breakthrough for advocates of tougher firearms controls since passage of legislation imposing waiting periods for handgun purchases and banning certain types of assault weapons in the early 1990s. Gun control forces have scored no major victories since Republicans captured control of Congress in 1994.
And for Gore, it provided a starring role after several weeks of negative news, including polls showing him trailing leading Republican contenders for the presidency next year and Clinton's acknowledgment that Gore's campaign has gotten off to a slow start. Gore has cast only four tie-breaking votes in his six years as the Senate's presiding officer.
The Senate vote came as Clinton was flying to Colorado to meet with survivors of the Littleton shooting and only a few hours after another school shooting in Conyers, Ga., where six students were injured.
The vote switch that made the difference yesterday came from Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), who said he made up his mind late Wednesday after Democrats agreed to some changes in their proposal. But the Conyers shootings "really confirmed for me that I was on the right track," he told reporters.
"I don't want my high schools, in my state, in this country, to turn into a miniature Vietnam, where you've got to come through a barricade and have an inner perimeter and an outer perimeter," said Cleland, 56, who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam.
In yesterday's vote, six Republicans joined all Democrats except Sen. Max Baucus (Mont.) in voting for the Democratic proposal. All Washington area senators supported the measure.
Democrats hailed the Senate outcome as a sign that the tide has turned against the gun lobby, although the NRA, with its strong influence among many GOP and some Democratic lawmakers, remained defiant.
"What you just saw is the NRA losing its grip on the United States Senate, at long last," said Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.).
In a statement by two of its top officials, the NRA charged that "the Clinton-Gore administration is pursuing a charade of law-making without law enforcement" and pursuing "made-for-television law-making."
In a Fox News interview, Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) defended his decision to allow votes on the issue, which some Republicans have criticized privately, and said Democrats have "missed the point" in stressing gun control. "We're obsessed with what is being used in the commission of these crimes instead of what's causing this," said Lott, who voted against both the Republican and Democratic gun show proposals. In the House, meanwhile, Hastert and Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) tentatively agreed to use the House version of the juvenile justice legislation as a vehicle to consider gun safety locks and background checks, as well as raising the age for gun possession from 18 to 21 and banning importation of high-capacity clips. But Democrats said later they would press for votes on the issue next week.
"This issue isn't going to go away," said Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), who had threatened to offer gun proposals on a pending appropriations bill.
Hastert and his deputies abruptly pulled the spending bill from consideration, concluding they were better off trying to manage votes on the volatile subject than allowing it to surface haphazardly.
"It's an issue you don't jump out and do by a motion," said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). "We are a deliberative body. We want to take our time and do it right."
Controversial in its own right, the juvenile justice bill had been stuck in the Senate Judiciary Committee for two years, but it received a new lease on life when Lott chose it as the vehicle for a post-Littleton debate on youth violence.
It authorizes $1 billion a year for five years for state and local law enforcement and prevention programs, subject to future appropriations. A bipartisan deal was worked out to make more money available for prevention, addressing some Democratic complaints over an earlier version of the measure.
States would be eligible for $450 million in enforcement grants, including funds for detention facilities, drug testing and anti-gang programs, but only if they adopt graduated sanctions for juvenile offenders, drug testing after arrest and policies recognizing the rights of victims. Another $435 million would be made available for prevention, $75 million to upgrade state record-keeping and $40 million for evaluation of juvenile programs.
For cases in federal court, it would allow U.S. attorneys to try youths 14 and older as adults for commission of serious violent or drug offenses. It increases penalties for gang activity and makes it a federal crime to solicit gang members. Another bipartisan deal added legal protections to prevent prosecutorial and other excesses.
In addition to gun amendments, the Senate attempted to address cultural issues raised by Littleton. It ordered a government study on the effect of violent entertainment on children and approved an antitrust exemption for the entertainment industry so it can develop codes of conduct to limit violence. It also approved a proposal to encourage Internet service providers to offer filters so parents can block access to objectionable material.
Before approving the bill, the Senate rejected, 50 to 48, a Democratic proposal to authorize $1 billion a year for five years to hire up to 50,000 more local police officers and community-based prosecutors and to fund better access to new crime-fighting technologies.
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