Rep. G. William Whitehurst, a conservative, nine-term Republican congressman from Norfolk, has chosen an unlikely goal for his final year in Congress: tougher gun control laws.
"Who, I ask, really wants softer gun laws?" Whitehurst told a recent House Judiciary subcommittee hearing. "If I were a criminal, I certainly would. If I were a gun dealer who didn't respect the law, I certainly would. And if I were involved in drug trafficking, you bet I would."
More recently, Whitehurst charged in a letter to Newsweek that " . . . the well-financed gun lobby has been able to aim its narrow appeal against every reasonable piece of law-enforcement legislation that so much as hints at bringing America's gun anarchy under control."
That tough talk has startled some of Whitehurt's colleagues and constituents but not officials of the National Rifle Association. NRA spokesman John Aquilino said Whitehurst's new positions are an "I'm-not-running-for-reelection" surge of bravery.
"He has no idea what he's talking about," said Aquilino.
"The fact that I'm not running again makes it somewhat easier for me to speak out boldly," the 60-year-old congressman agreed in an interview. "The gun control lobby is a powerful one."
Whitehurst's interest in this issue has surprised many on Capitol Hill, who note that the congressman, a former college dean and television commentator in Norfolk, rarely ventured into controversial issues -- much less gun control -- during his 17 years there.
Two years ago Whitehurst made his first move on the issue, cosponsoring a bill with Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.) to ban bullets that can penetrate bulletproof vests, a measure aimed at protecting police officers.
"I'll be darned if I didn't get some letters from people who belonged to the National Rifle Association, taking me to task for sponsoring this bill," said Whitehurst. "I was thunderstruck that any law-abiding citizen would take exception to that legislation. I couldn't believe that anyone, aside from criminals, could object to forbidding the sale of these kinds of bullets to the general public," he said. "It just kind of lit my fuse."
Barbara Lautman, a spokeswoman for Handgun Control, a group that has been lobbying for tougher gun laws, said, "Whitehurst really has become a champion on this issue . . . . He's one of a half-dozen of our strongest supporters."
Whitehurst, breaking with the view of most Virginia politicians, says he sees gun control as a law-and-order issue, much like capital punishment. He does not support banning guns, but he said he believes there should be uniform gun laws across the country and a 15-day waiting period to check a customer's background for a criminal record or mental problems.
Both changes are contained in a bill introduced by Rep. Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.), which Whitehurst supports.
The NRA has backed a different measure, passed this summer by the Senate, which would relax certain federal gun control laws. It would allow individuals to cross state lines and purchase handguns and would eliminate some recordkeeping requirements, and it would require federal agents to give notice to gun dealers before inspections.
The measure, sponsored by Rep. Harold L. Volkmer (D-Mo.) and opposed by major law enforcement organizations, is stuck in the House Judiciary Committee, which Rodino chairs. Supporters have circulated a petition to force the bill to the House floor, and Aquilino said they have more than half the 218 signatures they need.
Whitehurst said his support of the Rodino bill and opposition to the Volkmer measure have got some of his backers "a little put out with me." One man wrote him to tell the congressman that he was not going to vote for him again. "We had pleasure writing him back and saying: 'Well, surprise, pal, I'm not running,' " Whitehurst said.
Whitehurst said that many members of Congress believe that opposition to the Volkmer bill and support of the Rodino measure will earn them the wrath of the NRA and hurt them at the polls.
Aquilino said the NRA's lobbying is aggressive by design. He said his organization has 3 million members who want members of Congress who represent their views on guns. "If a congressman cannot represent his constituents, he should step aside," he said.
Whitehurst says his frustration is that the gun lobby has turned "gun control into a buzzword" by arguing that any strengthening of gun laws is "a first step in the banning of all guns" and an invalidation of the constitutional right to bear arms.
"That's absurd. This country's not going to do that," Whitehurst said. "They guns are too much a part of our lives. Unfortunately."
He recalled that during the height of the Vietnam War protests, a federal marshal tried to persuade him to get a permit and carry a gun because of threats against members of Congress.
"I said that I wouldn't hear of it. I'm not going to start packing a weapon," Whitehurst said. "This isn't the Wild West anymore."