Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) knows firsthand the power of the gun issue in politics. After he voted six years ago to ban assault weapons and impose a waiting period for handgun purchases, voters from his largely rural district bounced him from office.
He eventually made a comeback, winning another House seat in suburban Seattle. But far from chastened by his brush with gun politics, Inslee is preparing this week to vote for another set of gun initiatives--this time, though, with a twist.
Echoing far more conservative GOP members, Inslee insists the proposals pending in the House have nothing to do with gun control and everything to do with "gun safety." In the aftermath of the Littleton, Colo., high school shootings by two rifle-toting teenagers, he says, gun issues must be viewed in the context of larger societal problems of cultural violence and the breakdown of family values.
"It's a false choice to say it's either gun safety or not," Inslee said in an interview last week. "Gun safety is just one part of the solution that we ought to be trying to reduce violence. All of these other things need to be done as well."
His comments show why background checks of buyers at gun shows and other measures aimed at keeping guns from children still have a fighting chance of passage in a House that for the past four years has been controlled by pro-gun forces. With rural lawmakers almost universally opposed to gun control and their urban counterparts strongly in favor, the balance of power will be held by members of both parties in the increasingly dominant suburban or "mixed" districts.
While the political situation is far too volatile to predict an outcome with any certainty, it is clear that these lawmakers in the middle--particularly those, like Inslee, with tough races in 2000--feel a compelling need to respond to the Littleton shootings.
Moreover, polls show that 70 percent or more of Americans support further restrictions on the sale and handling of guns, even as the National Rifle Association and other groups mobilize to try to prevent the House from following the Senate's lead and passing new measures.
"There are times when the issue up is such that the traditional intensity of pro-gun activists is overtaken by the broader politicization of the citizenry over a dramatic event, such as an assassination or, in this case, a shoot-up in a high school," said Thomas Mann, a government expert with the Brookings Institution.
Rep. Anne M. Northup, a politically vulnerable Republican whose district includes Louisville, suburban Jefferson County and a smattering of rural Kentucky, finds the gun issue a complicated but compelling one. For years she has tried to straddle the issue, opposing bills holding gun manufacturers liable for the use of their guns in the commission of crimes, but opposing the lifting of the ban on automatic weapons. Now, she says, she must vote for additional restrictions, despite some reservations.
"In the big picture, I think gun control is a simplistic and small part of what happened at Columbine High," she said. "But to deny [that] the availability of guns is not at least a small piece of the issue isn't right at all."
Rep. Brian P. Bilbray, a three-term Republican from San Diego targeted by Democrats for defeat next year, says the gun issue, while not critical, is "certainly an important one."
While there aren't a lot of gun enthusiasts in his beach communities, Bilbray said, most voters would oppose passage of overly intrusive laws. "Everyone wants there to be a moderate, measured response that addresses this issue comprehensively, but that we not allow the extremes to control the agenda," he said. "I believe there are ways of protecting the public from gun violence without wiping out the Second Amendment" right to bear arms.
Even among some long-standing opponents of gun control, the public uproar over the Littleton shootings has caused a subtle shift in sentiment. Rather than looking for excuses to vote against a new proposal, some of these members are looking for something to vote for.
Rep. John A. Boehner, a Republican who represents an Ohio district with a large suburban and rural population, including roughly 5,000 members of the NRA, recalls that until now, "I've routinely voted against all gun laws."
But now, he says, in light of the rash of school violence throughout the country, "If there are reasonable attempts at sound public [gun] policy, I'll consider it."
Rep. Bart Stupak, a Democrat whose district includes the hunting paradise of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, has also expressed a willingness to consider some of the pending measures, adding however that "if they're going to start taking away guns or banning guns, I don't support that."
Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.), who represents a rural, pro-gun district, spent part of last week meeting with the leadership and networking with other members in search of a comprehensive package that also addresses "faith and values."
"There's an awful lot of energy going into this on both sides of the aisle," he said.
The Senate last month approved measures requiring for the first time background checks for all firearms purchased at gun shows and that safety locks be sold with new guns, and banning import of high-capacity ammunition clips. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) has drafted GOP amendments to a juvenile justice bill that would effectively weaken the Senate provision on background checks, while including the safety lock and ammo clip measures.
Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.) and other Democrats have prepared an alternative more along the lines of the Senate plan, while Democrats and Republicans alike will offer a smorgasbord of proposals on juvenile justice, outreach and counseling programs for teenagers, more police in school and a variety of measures addressing depictions of violence in the media.
With neither the Republican nor Democratic leadership willing to push for passage of a particular plan--and with so many possible combinations of plans--some lawmakers said that in the end no one combination may gain enough support to pass.
"Ironically, you may end up with no gun control bill, which would be a complete victory for the NRA," said Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.), a staunch gun control advocate.
But House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who visited Littleton after the disaster, insists there is still a slim chance a gun safety measure will pass.
"The country has changed on this legislation," Gephardt said. "People for the right reasons want more gun safety for their children. . . . And when you've just hugged a woman in Littleton who lost her child . . . [you realize] we have to try to get beyond the politics of this."
BACKGROUND - GUN CONTROL: National Gun Control Laws
1935 National Firearms Act
Regulated certain firearms such as automatic weapons and sawed-off shotguns.
Was precipitated by gang violence during Prohibition.
1968 Gun Control Act
Banned mail-order sales of firearms and import of handguns, and prohibited felons, the mentally ill and some others from owning firearms.
Followed assasinations of Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
1990 Gun-Free School Zones Act
Prohibited the possession of a firearm within 1,000 feet of schools.
The Supreme Court struck down the law though all 50 states have their own gun-free school laws.
1993 Brady Handgun Prevention Act
Required waiting period for prospective gun buyers and background checks by local law enforcement officers during that period.
Named after President Ronald Reagan's press secretary James Brady, who who paralyzed in an assassination attempt on the president in 1981.
The Supreme Court ruled that the federal government couldn't require local background checks, but most municipalities have continued to uphold the law voluntarily.
1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act
Banned the sale, manufacture and import of certain kinds of assault weapons.
1999 Youth Violence Act
Mandatory background checks at gun shows and child-safety locks.
Passed in the Senate and awaits vote in the full House.
An example of a gun safety lock that would be required with every gun sold under the juvenile justice bill.
MAGAZINE LOCK: A combination lock built into the bottom of a magazine for semiautomatic pistols, such as the Glock-17.
SOURCE: Facts on File, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
CAPTION: The United States has by far the highest gun death rate among 11 countries in a recent survey. Firearm deaths per 100,000 population (This graphic was not available)
CAPTION: U.S. gun deaths reached their peak in 1993 (39,595) and have been on the decline. Firearm deaths (in thousands) (This graphic was not available)
CAPTION: Since the Brady Act took effect, more than 240,000 gun purchases were blocked because of background checks. Handgun purchases rejected because of background checks (in thousands) (This graphic was not available)
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