The House last night approved a plan to weaken some of the existing rules for background checks at gun shows, in a vote that revealed the enduring power of pro-gun forces in Congress.
The action signaled a tactical victory for the National Rifle Association, House Republicans and some conservative Democrats, who appeared to be succeeding in forestalling more aggressive proposals for regulating gun shows -- an idea that has gained momentum after the Littleton, Colo., school shootings.
On a 218 to 211 vote, the House endorsed a proposal by Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) to water down a Senate measure requiring background checks for all weapons sales at gun shows. By 235 to 193, the House also shot down a competing proposal that more closely resembled the Senate plan, which is favored by gun control advocates.
The Dingell plan would narrow the range of gun shows that are now subject to federal background check requirements. The amendment also would limit all background checks at gun shows to 24 hours, rather than the 72 hours the law now gives federally licensed dealers to make sure felons do not buy weapons.
Dingell's plan would, however, close what people on both sides of the debate agree is a loophole in current law, requiring nonlicensed dealers to begin conducting such background checks.
With more votes looming this morning, both on other gun amendments and on the overall gun bill, it remained possible that the House would adopt another plan or scrap the whole gun control enterprise altogether. Lawmakers also will consider a proposal to overturn the District's ban on handgun ownership.
The vote on the Dingell plan exposed significant divisions in both parties on gun control: 45 Democrats supported the proposal, while 47 Republicans voted against it. The measure was supported by all top GOP leaders, including House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
Among area lawmakers, three Virginia Republicans opposed it -- Herbert H. Bateman, Thomas M. Davis III and Frank R. Wolf, while four Democrats supported it -- Rick Boucher, Virgil H. Goode Jr., Owen B. Pickett and Norman Sisisky. Among Maryland Republicans, Wayne T. Gilchrest and Constance A. Morella voted no. All Democrats opposed it.
Critics warned that the measure would ensure a surge in incidents of criminals evading detection as they buy guns. But Dingell, a long-time NRA ally who angered many fellow Democrats in pushing the proposal, said: "To go beyond this is to simply harass innocent, law-abiding citizens" and destroy gun show operations.
The gun show action came shortly after the House, concluding a second day of debate on the causes of a spate of school shootings, approved a major juvenile justice package that would impose strict penalties on violent young offenders and provide more money to curb youth violence.
The Juvenile Offenders Act would provide states and local governments with an extra $1.5 billion over three years to build new correctional facilities, hire more prosecutors and create drug rehabilitation programs. It would increase the penalties for young people who illegally use or possess guns.
Before approving the bill on a 287 to 139 vote, the House tacked on amendments favored by cultural conservatives, including one permitting states to allow the Ten Commandments to be posted in schools and government buildings, while rejecting their efforts to crack down on the entertainment industry. Only 81 Democrats joined 206 Republicans to approve the overall juvenile bill.
In urging his colleagues to approve the measure, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) mocked calls by congressional Democrats and the White House for more comprehensive social and psychological programs to address youth violence. Instead, he called for a return to old-fashioned family values and tough, firm responses to crime.
"It doesn't take a village to raise a child," DeLay said, in a play on the title of a book by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. "It takes a mother and a father to raise a child. . . . The lesson of Columbine High School is that we have created a culture that raises children that kill children."
Anxious to put the emphasis on cultural issues such as religion and the influence of movies and video games, GOP leaders scripted yesterday's debate so the gun issue -- the focus of intense interest by many Democrats -- was put off until late in the evening.
The major issue at stake last night concerned competing proposals to close a loophole in federal law that has enabled unlicensed dealers to sell weapons at gun shows without conducting the background checks required of licensed dealers.
The Senate approved last month a measure mandating that unlicensed dealers conduct background checks on people buying weapons at gun shows within 72 hours of the sale, as well as proposals mandating that safety locks be sold with new guns and banning the importation of high-capacity ammunition clips. Whatever is ultimately passed by the House must be reconciled with the Senate plan, and signed by President Clinton, before becoming law.
Passage of the so-called Dingell amendment represents an extraordinary turnabout for House GOP leaders, who less than a week ago appeared to have lost control of the volatile issue. Unlike their Senate counterparts, who were coerced by Democrats to accept tougher gun control measures than they favored, House leaders made common cause with anti-gun-control Democrats to forge an agreement acceptable to a majority of House members.
Under existing law, federally licensed firearms dealers are required to use an instant, computerized background check system whenever they sell a gun, whether at their shop or at a gun show. The exception to this -- the so-called Brady law loophole -- involves gun show transactions by nonlicensed collectors and others, who are free to rent a table at a gun show and sell firearms without background checks.
Dingell's amendment would extend the background check requirement to nonlicensed firearms sellers at gun shows, which is what gun control advocates want. But it also would impose a 24-hour deadline for completion of background checks on all gun show sales, including those by licensed dealers. Under existing law, law enforcement authorities have up to three business days to complete background checks on sales through a licensed dealer.
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), a leading gun control advocate whose husband was shot to death on a commuter train, unsuccessfully offered a competing amendment that would employ the three-business-days standard, to ensure what she said was adequate time to determine whether a convicted felon is attempting to purchase a weapon.
In an emotional floor speech after midnight, McCarthy said she originally came to Congress determined to spare other families the suffering she has experienced. She insisted a three-day waiting period was not an unacceptable inconvenience.
"This is not a game to me. This is not a game to the American people," she said, fighting back tears. "If we don't do it, shame on us, because I have to tell you, the American people will remember."
As they debated the competing proposals, leading lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed that something must be done to close the loophole concerning gun shows -- but they clashed on how far Congress should go. Democrats beseeched colleagues to stand up to the NRA, while Republicans urged a "balanced" approach to guns that respects the Second Amendment.
"We have a very serious problem, but oh my God, it goes far beyond guns," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), who offered his own gun show proposal. Still, he said, "there are in my judgment too many guns, too easily accessible to kids, and we have to do something about it. . . . It's a shame we can't do something about it together rather than in a partisan way."
Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) spoke to the House about the toll of youth violence, noting more Americans have died from school violence than from the Kosovo conflict.
"When you have . . . kids killing kids in high school, not just in high schools but in suburbs all over this country, you have a national crisis," Gephardt said.
But Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Tex.) offered a different analysis of the problem: "More guns are used each day in self-defense and to prevent crime than are used to commit crime," he said. "For me the need is not for more gun control legislation on the books, but better enforcement of the laws we already have."
Despite long odds against them, McCarthy and other gun control advocates worked all day to woo GOP moderates, particularly those who supported passage of the Brady bill and a ban on assault weapons during the 104th Congress.
And President Clinton, the first lady and Vice President Gore also were making calls in behalf of tougher gun measures, White House aides said. In Paris yesterday, Clinton said he awoke at 5 a.m. to make calls to lawmakers in the United States, where it was still Wednesday night.
Last night, the White House released a statement from Clinton condemning the House vote. "Instead of closing the deadly gun show loophole, the House of Representatives voted in the dead of night to let criminals keep buying guns at gun shows," the president said. "This vote will not stand the light of day."
Several lawmakers acknowledged coming under pressure from both sides. Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.), who may challenge New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for the GOP Senate nomination next year, has been urged by New York State Conservative Party Chairman Michael R. Long to vote for the Dingell amendment. But Lazio said yesterday he would support McCarthy's amendment because it would bring "consistency" to retail and gun show sales.
Some Democratic allies, meanwhile, criticized House Democrats for supporting dozens of Republican amendments to the juvenile justice bill over the past two days, in hopes it will pave the way for a compromise on gun control.
For instance, the House voted 248 to 180 to approve an amendment by Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) that would allow states to permit the Ten Commandments to be displayed in schools or government buildings, apparently contradicting a 1980 Supreme Court ruling that such displays violate the First Amendment.
"This singling out of one religion is contrary to the American ideal of religious tolerance and is blatantly unconstitutional," said Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott (D-Va.), a member of the Judiciary Committee.
But Aderholt said his measure would pass constitutional muster because it doesn't mandate display of the Ten Commandments -- but only allows states to do so. "It's important to get back to those principles this nation was based on," he said.
Staff writers Joan Biskupic, Edward Walsh, Spencer Hsu and Hanna Rosin contributed to this report.