House Republican leaders yesterday embraced gun control legislation written with the help of the National Rifle Association, and announced plans to rush it to a final vote.
The GOP measure significantly modifies a Democratic proposal that narrowly passed the Senate last month and that for the first time would require mandatory background checks on all firearm purchases at gun shows. While retaining the Senate's mandatory checks, the House Republican version modifies important details, such as the definition of a gun show, to meet objections to the Senate bill raised by the NRA and other gun control opponents.
"I want a bill that has a future," said Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) a co-sponsor of the legislation.
Democrats immediately denounced the legislation. "It definitely reflects the NRA's priorities," said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) "There is going to be a backlash with the American people."
In an effort to avoid the kind of lengthy debate that mired the Senate for two weeks, House Republican leaders announced yesterday that the bill would bypass the normal deliberations by the House Judiciary Committee and instead go directly to a vote by the full House next week.
Despite the expedited legislative schedule, arguments over the bill began to erupt as soon as its text started circulating late yesterday afternoon.
While the Senate version defines a gun show as any event at which more than 50 guns are for sale, the House version only regulates events at which 10 or more vendors are selling guns. Under the House proposal, "you could sell a thousand guns in an afternoon, and as long as there were only nine vendors at the event it wouldn't qualify as a gun show and you wouldn't have to do any background checks," said Kristen Rand, director of federal policy at the Violence Policy Center, a gun control advocacy group.
"The Senate bill would have meant that I would have to do a background check if I was selling my collection of 50 guns to my brother," said James J. Baker, chief lobbyist for the NRA, in an interview earlier this week.
The Senate bill broadly defines the transactions requiring mandatory checks to include occasions when a weapon is merely offered for sale to a buyer at a gun show, but the sale itself is concluded later. The House proposal would apply only when the buyer and seller reached an agreement on the sale at the gun show. If the buyer and seller discussed a sale at the show but reached a final agreement on the price and concluded the transaction the next day at the seller's home, for example, no background check would be required.
Also, the House bill would allow gun dealers to ship weapons to buyers across state lines under some circumstances, something that has generally been prohibited under federal law for more than 30 years.
"The Republicans have done a drive-by shooting on the Senate bill. It's a complete capitulation to the NRA," said Julian Epstein, chief minority counsel on the House Judiciary Committee.
"We are trying to craft a bill that can pass, and in following that path by definition you are going to have something that is middle of the road," said Michael Scanlon, spokesman for House Majority Whip Tom Delay (R-Tex.). Asked whether the measure adopted by the Senate would have been able to pass the House, DeLay himself said, "I doubt it."
Since the Senate adopted its measure May 20, the NRA has rallied its 2.8 million members against the Senate bill with a $750,000 mailing campaign and a $300,000 phone bank operation, Baker of the NRA said. Having shown the Republican leadership that it was prepared to fight the Senate bill, the NRA then began working with Republican aides to draft gun show language that the group would find acceptable, Baker said.
Sitting in the NRA's Capitol Hill office Monday afternoon, Baker outlined the revisions to the Senate bill that the NRA considered essential. Each of those provisions was reflected in the draft language released by the Republican leadership yesterday.
"We are looking for something that is responsive to public sentiment but that will not eliminate, or unreasonably restrict, the possibility of weapons sales among law-abiding citizens at gun shows, Baker said Monday.
The NRA would not comment on the Republican proposal yesterday, with spokesman Bill Powers saying it was still being analyzed.
Democrats quickly decried the GOP's decision to bypass the Judiciary Committee. "It's now obvious to me this was all a sham to give the NRA and others who are opposed to this legislation time to regroup," House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), told reporters.
Even Judiciary Committee member Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) said he was "disappointed" by the leadership's decision, noting that Republicans emphasized last month they planned "to follow the regular order and have a methodical approach to this."
But top Republicans said they will simply trying to maximize the bill's chances for passage, bypassing the contentious Judiciary Committee, which includes several conservatives opposed to gun control.
"The best way to get a compromise bill is to bring the bill to the floor and avoid the circus of the Judiciary Committee," said one GOP leadership aide who asked not to be identified.
CAPTION: "I want a bill that has a future," said Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), who is a co-sponsor of National Rifle Association-backed proposal.