President Clinton said yesterday that Americans should be required to register guns as they do cars, waving a red flag in front of gun owner advocates who long have argued that registration could be a step toward new restrictions, even confiscation.
But the president, who hotly defended his record on gun control, said he is not proposing mandatory registration of firearms because he believes Congress will not accept it. While he left the door open to future efforts, aides said it would be extremely difficult in the Republican-led Congress that will last through the end of his presidency.
Clinton made the comments -- his most extensive yet on gun registration -- in a televised interview in which he angrily rejected the notion that he has not fought hard enough to curb gun violence. He blamed Congress for what some critics have called a tepid national response to school shootings in Littleton, Colo., and elsewhere.
"Should people ought to have to register guns like they register their cars? Do I think that? Of course I do," the president said in an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America." He said most Americans would support such a move, "but they elected the Congress, and the Congress doesn't have that opinion."
In the wake of the Littleton shootings, the Senate approved a package of restrictions that includes background checks on purchasers at gun shows and mandatory ,3 safety locks or locking storage containers for new handguns. The House will take up similar legislation after it reconvenes next week, and Clinton said he is focusing for now on those more modest proposals.
When program co-host Charles Gibson asked why gun registration isn't required now, an animated Clinton replied: "Look, let's join the real world here. . . . I am the first president who ever took on the NRA [National Rifle Association]. I got my party in Congress to stand with me on the Brady bill, which has made a difference, [and] on the assault weapons ban." The Brady law established a waiting period and background checks for handgun purchases.
The president grew especially testy when Gibson quoted an unnamed person as saying the president had "meowed" when he "had a chance to roar on gun control" in the wake of public outrage over the Littleton shootings, which took 15 lives.
Clinton, narrowing his eyes and pounding his fist into his palm, said: "Now wait a minute! You talk about roaring and meowing. Then I came forward with this legislation," including the mandatory checks at gun shows.
"Did this roar through the Senate?" Clinton said. "No. We passed a bill closing the gun show loophole by 51 to 50 because of the vice president of the United States. Did the House of Representatives make a priority of what was passed in the Senate and pass it right through? No. They went home before taking action. Why? To give the NRA time to lobby them, to water down what was passed."
Sometimes blocking Gibson's efforts to interject, the president added: "For you to say I shouldn't take what I can get, and instead I should ask for things that I am absolutely positive will be defeated in the Congress, is quite wrong."
NRA spokesman Bill Powers said in an interview it was "startling" that Clinton would advocate firearms registration. Such a program, he said, would result in "a national database of names and addresses of every law-abiding, peaceful gun-owning citizen."
Responding to Clinton's remarks about Congress, Michele Davis, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), said the House is "taking a comprehensive look" at youth violence.
"We realize what most American parents realize: that the problem is a lot more than guns," she said. Solutions to youth violence, she said, should include "giving the police and judicial system more authority to get troubled kids out of the community. . . . It's a lot more than gun locks."
White House press secretary Joe Lockhart told reporters that gun registration is on the back burner for the White House. "I don't know that there's been a lot of work done on that issue here," he said. "I think the president believes there may be some things in there worth looking at. . . . Certainly there will be nothing pushed any time soon on that."
The ABC interview took place in the White House just before Clinton and his wife held a lengthy conversation on youth violence -- aired live by "Good Morning America" -- with 40 teenagers from several states.
High school student Sarah McCarthy of McLean asked Hillary Rodham Clinton if students' rights might be violated in the push for stronger safety measures at schools.
The use of metal detectors, the first lady replied, "is much less intrusive than having, you know, random searches and the like. . . . In places where metal detectors have been used, I think people feel that after a while it didn't become much of an intrusion. It's like getting on an airplane."
CAPTION: President Clinton applauds disabled activist Laura Hershey of Denver after presenting an award for what he called "efforts to bring more and more people with disabilities into the world of work." She was one of three so honored.