A powerful House Democrat called "the Truck" by his colleagues rolled over his party's hopes for stronger gun control and a campaign issue. He helped deliver to the Republicans and the National Rifle Association a victory of the sort they have dreamed of since the Brady bill six years ago.
John Dingell is a large man with a forceful personality, famous for reducing Pentagon brass to pulp in his hearing room. When he was chairman of the House Commerce Committee, he executed a breathtaking extension of his jurisdiction by hauling officials to the witness table so he could thunder at them about defense contracts. But he is sentimental about guns and his father's tutelage in firearms. He broods about endangered gun shows.
Dingell brought 44 Democrats with him in his effort to beat back a Senate bill that would impose a three-day waiting period for gun purchases at gun shows. He complained to associates about the "heat" he was feeling from outraged Democrats, a majority of whom were baffled by Dingell's insistence on sparing Republicans the onus of reducing the proposed wait to 24 hours. His Michigan colleague, Rep. John Conyers, who was leading the Democrats in the debate on the juvenile justice bill and its gun amendments, comes from an adjoining congressional district with a similar mix of country and city voters, including furious mothers who are more concerned about protecting the schoolroom than the gun show. "I cannot explain what my colleague is doing," Conyers told the House in a floor speech.
Dingell apparently thought Democrats would be grateful to him for shielding them from the wrath of the NRA, which like the GOP majority thinks any restraints on gun commerce--there are only 220 million in circulation in the United States--is the work of the devil. Democratic leader Dick Gephardt begged Dingell not to weaken the Senate bill. Dingell's unlikely opponent in the shootout was a second-term New York Democrat, a small blond woman named Carolyn McCarthy, who is still learning her way around the Capitol but was willing to take on Dingell, a 44-year House institution. She was elected to Congress after her husband and son were shot by a crazed gunman on a Long Island commuter train in 1993. Her husband was killed, her son paralyzed. She says, understandably, "My priority is guns."
She knew what it meant to some of her colleagues to stand up to the Truck. Democratic Rep. Karen McCarthy (no relation) of Kansas City hoped to avoid a confrontation, but Dingell summoned her, and she had to tell him that she would not be on his side. He was indignant. "I was nervous, but I stood my ground," she said. "I told him that the main reason I was here was to get guns out of the hands of children."
Carolyn McCarthy, sitting in the speaker's lobby as the debate wore on, told of a freshman member who intended to defy Dingell and wondered if he could weather the consequences. She said she assured him: "I am a nurse. I take care of the wounded."
From Paris, President Clinton made urgent calls. So did outgoing Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. Attorney General Janet Reno came up for a late afternoon press conference, to remind everyone that Brady bill background-checking requirements had stopped 17,000 felons from making gun shop purchases in just the past six months--driving home the point that gun shows must be included.
A corner of Gephardt's suite was converted into a war room, and operatives from the White House, Justice and Treasury distributed fact sheets and steadied wanderers and waverers. Gephardt shared a new Pew poll that showed a 10-percent increase in favor of Democrats since the Senate barely passed minor gun reforms last month. "What else could it be but gun control?" he asked.
The Republicans, who take the position that guns were not responsible for the shooting deaths of 15 people at Columbine High School in Colorado, pushed through an amendment that would allow the posting of the Ten Commandments on classroom walls.
Dingell's view of the world--that it is the gun show that needs protection, not our children--was delivered just before the midnight vote. In arguing for reducing the amount of time allowed to check the backgrounds of gun show buyers, he said "to go beyond [24 hours] is to harass legitimate businesses and to prevent law-abiding citizens from the enjoyment of going to gun shows."
He was echoed by the quintessential House Republican, Bill McCollum of Florida, who said solemnly that he could not support the longer waiting period because "I think it would mean the death of the gun show."
In other words, thanks to John Dingell, these charming folk festivals where gang members and felons can buy all the firearms they fancy have become objects of bipartisan solicitude. It's all academic now. On Friday, the House turned around and deep-sixed the whole monstrosity. Will the Senate bill die at the Dingell-NRA truck stop?