NOBODY EVER expected this terminally befuddled and small-minded Congress to do anything constructive, so it comes as no surprise that gun control got murdered in this session.
Like many another Western liberals, House Speaker Tom Foley is no gun-control advocate. In his Washington state, only sissies are, apparently. So without saying how he feels one way or another, he is promising to put to a vote a gun-control bill that is sure to lose while keeping off the floor a bill that is almost sure to win. The latter measure -- the so-called Brady bill -- would mandate a seven-day waiting period before a gun purchase is completed. It has 151 co-sponsors, the backing of police chiefs, teachers and the League of Women Voters and a 95 percent standing in the public opinion polls.
Rep. William Hughes (D-N.J.) has begged the speaker to sidetrack his doomed measure -- one that would forbid the domestic manufacture of semiautomatic weapons. President Bush had already asked Congress to ban the assembling of automatics from imported parts; but an amendment to protect domestic assembly was introduced by Foley's Washington state colleague, Jolene Unsoeld, and passed easily while National Rifle Association operatives danced in the aisles. The Hughes bill wouldn't have a chance.
Both Foley and Unsoeld are paying a certain price for their gun-slinging. Foley's telephone number was given out by New York's Mayor David Dinkins, who wants New Yorkers to prod the speaker into moving on the Brady bill, named for former White House press secretary Jim Brady, who was wounded in the Reagan assassination attempt. Foley has been the subject of innumerable cartoons and editorials for his insistence on delay.
Unsoeld, who is in a tight fight for reelection, is also locked in bitter combat with Jim Brady and his wife, Sarah, who last summer sent a letter to Unsoeld's campaign contributors urging them to lobby the congresswoman to change her mind on gun control.
The trio had a stormy, disastrous encounter where, Unsoeld said in a letter to the constituents contacted by the Bradys, she "had never experienced anything like the unprofessional and threatening technique used by Sarah Brady." After an unreconstructed Unsoeld took her battle for the assault weapons to the floor, the Bradys unleashed a series of radio ads -- some of which were rejected by local stations -- accusing her of selling out to the NRA.
The Seattle Times says Unsoeld, an activist liberal whose toothy grin reminds some of her colleagues of Eleanor Roosevelt, was a gun-control backer during her four years in the Washington legislature. She, however, insists that two votes were "misunderstood" and that she was "mislabeled."
While denying that she flipped, she says she has "learned from her constituents." That could be another way of saying that her legislative district was urban and pro-control, and that her congressional district is rural and pro-gun. Unsoeld's campaign received a $5,000 check from the NRA the morning after passage of her amendment to protect the manufacture of AK-47-type weapons. She says it was one of two contributions she received from the NRA after she made her peace with the organization and had nothing to do with her pro-gun moves.
She is, she says, motivated entirely by zealotry for the Constitution. We cannot support rights selectively, she insists. We must honor "the right to bear arms" just as she honors a woman's right to abortion and a speaker's right to free speech.
Sarah Brady regards Jolene Unsoeld as "the perfect foil for the NRA -- a liberal Democratic woman." Unsoeld says Sarah Brady just wants to prove that the gun-control lobby can knock off a candidate. The issue in her campaign, she says, is not gun control; it has become a question of her character and integrity. She says contributions have fallen off and her rival, a right-wing Republican, is quoting the Brady ads.
Usually, John Dingell, the premier gun-lover in the House, introduces pro-NRA amendments. Unsoeld, an earnest environmentalist and ardent abortion-rights advocate, was a startling change. Her save-the-assault-weapon amendment won, which is why Hughes is so anxious to stave off an election-eve vote on his bill to ban the automatics.
"What difference does it make to a policeman if he's shot by a gun that was made in China or in this country?" he asks.
But when he went to plead with the speaker, he was told that the bill was on the schedule and that "it is very hard to take it off."
Rep. Edward J. Feighan (D-Ohio), sponsor of the Brady bill, has had no luck persuading the speaker to put it to a vote. Foley says the members should not be dragged over the hot coals of a contentious issue that cannot possibly pass the Senate in the little time that is left.
Feighan counters that after the punishment gun-control forces have taken from the NRA and its dear friends in Congress, they desperately need a victory.
Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.