The Senate last night overwhelmingly approved a wide-ranging anti-crime bill that would impose new gun controls, reinstate the federal death penalty, curb death-row appeals and stiffen sentences for crimes involving drugs and firearms.
The 71 to 26 bipartisan vote came a day after the Senate, weary from dealing with more than 80 amendments on issues ranging from terrorism to drug-free truck stops, cut off delaying tactics by foes of a key provision requiring a five-day wait for purchase of handguns.
The final hurdle was cleared last evening when, after a day of wrangling on the floor and haggling in the cloakrooms, Senate leaders prevailed on Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) to put off votes on contentious amendments dealing with child pornography and treatment of patients by AIDS-infected doctors. Those votes were rescheduled for next Thursday.
Votes against the measure came from liberals opposed to the death penalty and other punitive provisions as well as from generally more conservative senators, mostly from rural states, who opposed the gun-control provisions. Opponents included 16 Republicans and 10 Democrats. All Washington area senators voted for the bill.
The bill, endorsed in general terms by President Bush last week, now goes to the House, which plans to consider a crime bill of its own in September. The House has already approved a seven-day waiting period for handgun purchases.
Eager to address voters' anxiety over crime in advance of next year's elections, senators had spent nearly three weeks on the crime bill in what amounted to a political bidding war between Democrats and Republicans over who could demonstrate the greater toughness toward criminals.
The partisan bickering continued right up to the final roll call, as Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) claimed the bill as a victory for Bush, prompting counterclaims from Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) that it was largely a Democratic achievement.
Both agreed it was a "sound, tough bill," as Biden described it, although some of the key provisions hailed by both sides seemed tougher in their political symbolism than they did in their prospects for curbing crime.
Most crime that threatens ordinary citizens is investigated, prosecuted and punished on the state and local levels and would be largely unaffected by changes in federal law. Moreover, just as the Senate was authorizing $3.3 billion to buttress federal, state and local law enforcement efforts, its Appropriations Committee approved a fiscal 1992 justice spending bill that included no money for programs contained in the anti-crime measure.
But the heavy emphasis on capital punishment, which could be imposed for 51 separate federal offenses, drew protests from liberals, some of whom vowed to vote against the bill even though it included the gun-control provisions they had championed for years.
"I cannot support a bill which does so little to deter violent crime and which, in the name of being tough on crime, puts at risk the lives of innocent people" who might be wrongly convicted, said Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio). "There is too much death penalty with too few protections."
By adding one crime after another to the list of offenses subject to capital punishment, the Senate was saying, "Throw the switch and watch them twitch," claimed an angry Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.).
Bush last week expressed general satisfaction with the measure. He had said earlier that he would sign the gun-control provisions, which he had opposed, only if they were included in a tough, comprehensive anti-crime package.
Attorney General Dick Thornburgh hailed passage of the bill last night, saying it "sends a powerful signal" and adding: "If enacted, this legislation will strengthen the ability of federal, state and local law enforcement to remove drug traffickers and violent offenders from our streets -- once and for all."
In a barometer of the rising political popularity of capital punishment, the 51 capital crimes listed in this year's bill are a substantial increase over the 34 listed in the Senate's unsuccessful crime bill last year.
Most involve murder, including crimes that were previously on the books but unenforceable because of procedural defects. Homicides associated with drugs and international terrorism also would be punishable by death.
But the bill also would prescribe death sentences for leaders of large-scale drug operations, even when murder is not committed. It also would allow federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty for murder with firearms that have crossed state lines, essentially federalizing most gun-caused murders, even in the 14 states that ban capital punishment.
The gun-control provisions, including a ban on nine types of semiautomatic assault weapons and the five-day waiting period for handgun purchases, are the most far-reaching to be approved since the broad gun regulations enacted after the murders of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
Prospective gun buyers would be checked for criminal backgrounds during the waiting period. The five-day wait would be dropped when a nationwide, computerized criminal check system is established, presumably within a few years.
Approval of the waiting-period proposal, dubbed the "Brady bill" after former White House press secretary James S. Brady, who was wounded in an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981, marked one of the most serious defeats ever for the National Rifle Association (NRA). The NRA led the fight against the proposal, pleading unsucessfully with senators earlier this week to reject the whole crime bill as a gun-control bill in disguise.
In the president's biggest victory in connection with the legislation, the Senate approved severe constraints on death-row appeals, which would effectively ban federal judges from acting on appeals from prisoners if they were found to have had "full and fair" hearings in state courts.
But Bush was rebuffed when he sought to allow courts to consider evidence seized without warrants if police believed they were not violating constitutional protections.
THE SENATE BILL IN BRIEF
A mandatory national waiting period of five business days would be required for the purchase of a handgun. Background checks to screen out criminals would be required during the waiting period.
A nationwide computerized network would be established, to be financed by annual allocations of $100 million, that would help gun sellers make instant checks on buyers. Once operational, the instant check system would replace the waiting period and would apply to all firearms, not just handguns.
Manufacture and sale of nine types of foreign and domestic semiautomatic assault weapons would be banned for three years. A proposal to ban ammunition clips of more than 15 rounds was dropped.
Federal courts would be empowered to impose a death sentence for 51 crimes, including 23 capital offenses that were previously on the books but unenforceable because of procedural defects.
New capital crimes include murder in connection with genocide, use of firearms, hostage-taking, torture, drive-by-shootings, sale of drugs to minors, civil rights conspiracies and racketeering. Drug kingpins could be executed for repeated felonies, regardless of whether murder was committed.
Federal prosecutors could seek the death penalty for murders by guns, even in states that ban capital punishment. District of Columbia courts would be empowered to impose the death penalty, now banned under D.C. law, for drug-related murders. Indian tribal governments could bar imposition of the death penalty on tribal lands.
In a drastic curtailment of death-row appeals, federal courts would be required to deny appeals of state-imposed death sentences if they determine that the prisoner had a "full and fair" hearing in state courts. Even if it was determined that the state hearing was deficient, a prisoner could go to federal court only once unless the petition involved issues of guilt or innocence. Strict time limits would be set for filing and hearing petitions. A less drastic alternative was rejected.
In what amounted to codification of current practice in most federal circuits, evidence seized with a defective warrant could be admitted in court if the police acted in "good faith" that the warrant was legal. A more stringent alternative to allow admission of evidence without a warrant if police believed the seizure was constitutional was rejected.
Law Enforcement Assistance
Nearly $3.3 billion was authorized for fiscal 1992 to aid state and local law enforcement efforts ($1 billion), hire more federal agents and attorneys ($350 million), build 10 regional prisons for drug offenders ($700 million), help cities hardest hit by drug crime ($300 million), expand military-style "boot camp" programs for young drug offenders ($150 million) and assist other efforts ranging from anti-gang activities to control of drugs in rural areas and counter-terrorism activities.
However, because of budget constraints, there is no guarantee that any additional money will be appropriated to fund the programs.
Prison sentences would be increased for many offenses, especially those involving use of guns. Mandatory sentences would be imposed for use or possession of a firearm during a violent crime, starting with 10 years for a first offense, in effect making gun-related crime a federal offense.
x A Police Corps to provide college training in exchange for four years service as a police officer would be created.
x States would have to establish a police "bill of rights" to provide standards for internal investigations.
x Drug testing would be required for federal prisoners on probation or parole.
x Truck stops and public areas in housing projects would be declared drug-free zones.