The drive for expanded gun controls abruptly collapsed in the House yesterday, raising doubts that Congress will pass any gun measures this year and prompting a round of angry finger-pointing over which party was to blame for the stalemate.
A deeply divided House voted 280 to 147 to reject the first major package of gun proposals to come before it in five years. The bill included new rules for background checks at gun shows, a ban on the importation of large-capacity ammunition clips and a requirement that safety locks be sold with new guns.
In the end, a strange coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans favoring gun control and conservatives on the other side of the issue combined to kill the measure. Many Democrats decided they were better off with no bill after pro-gun forces managed, late Thursday, to substantially revise part of the bill dealing with gun shows. And hard-liners skeptical of the efficacy of gun control could not live with any new restrictions at all.
Lawmakers and White House officials insisted there is still a chance that Congress will enact gun legislation later this year, and they noted that the House may yet accept some of the gun control provisions -- including child safety locks and a ban on serious juvenile felons ever owning guns -- that the Senate recently approved.
Still, leaders in both parties wasted little time in pinning blame for yesterday's developments and maneuvering politically over an issue that could have a potent -- if uncertain -- impact on next year's congressional and presidential elections.
In Cologne for an economic summit, President Clinton leveled an angry broadside at the Republicans and vowed to redouble his efforts to achieve stronger gun laws. "The House leadership gutted this bill in the dark of night to keep common-sense gun legislation from seeing the light of day," he said.
For their part, Republican leaders blamed Clinton's party for the setback, saying Democrats were more interested in having a political issue than compromising when legislation was in reach. "The vast majority of the Democrat caucus walked away when they had the chance to walk forward for the good of the country," said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
Largely ignored by the GOP-controlled Congress for the past five years, gun control proposals gained momentum as a result of the public outcry over the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. The Senate last month unexpectedly included a package of new gun controls as part of a larger "juvenile justice" bill, including a plan to close what is widely seen as a loophole in the federal system of background checks at gun shows.
Under 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 involves gun show transactions by non-licensed collectors and others, who are free to rent a table at a gun show and sell firearms without background checks.
The Senate bill would require that these non-licensed dealers to conduct background checks within 72 hours of a sale at a gun show.
But when the House took up comparable juvenile justice legislation this week, GOP leaders aggressively maneuvered to avoid the fate of their Senate counterparts, who unsuccessfully resisted Democratic gun proposals. First they made sure that gun control, the focus of much of the Senate's deliberations, was put off for two days, as the House debated the limits on religious expression, violent entertainment and the other cultural explanations many Republicans cite for youth violence.
Then, as the House took up gun show legislation late Thursday, Republicans made common cause with conservative Democrats, winning approval of a critical amendment by gun supporter Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.). The Dingell proposal not only revised the Senate plan, but also -- in the view of gun control advocates -- substantially weakened existing law.
The Dingell amendment gave licensed dealers only 24 hours to conduct background checks, rather than the current three business days. While the National Rifle Association said any more time was an unnecessary imposition, gun control advocates said it was not enough time for dealers to keep felons from buying weapons.
After the Dingell amendment passed, around midnight Thursday, support for the overall gun bill deteriorated rapidly, even as members of both parties approved a series of amendments yesterday morning both adding -- and overturning -- gun restrictions.
For instance, the House approved, 311 to 115, an amendment by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) requiring manufacturers to include child-safety locks on new guns. It also approved another amendment, by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), allowing law-abiding D.C. residents to possess a loaded handgun in their home.
Yet even as these amendments were approved, Democrats were mobilizing support against the overall bill, with the active encouragement of the Clinton administration. They argued that the Dingell provision was so egregious that it justified voting the whole package down, even with the child safety locks and a ban on importing high-capacity ammunition clips.
And while Rep. Bill McCollum (Fla.) and other Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee argued that the change in the gun show provision was a small price to pay for a gun bill containing important safety features for young people, the Democrats declared the Republicans would have blood on their hands.
"This is a joke," Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) said of the gun bill. He said enactment of the language would make House members "accomplices when 13 of our children are gunned down every day . . . [and] when a child finds a family gun and ends the life of a neighbor."
"America, the NRA and [NRA president] Charlton Heston are writing your gun laws," he added. "Where is your outrage?"
Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee who promoted alternative handgun legislation in line with the Senate-passed version, dismissed the GOP approach as "this sorry bill."
Moderate Republicans, dismayed by the Republicans' concessions to anti-gun forces, joined in. "I hope in my lifetime the marriage between the NRA and my party ends," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.). "It's a bad marriage."
Rather than defend the package, some Republicans encouraged members to approve the package to keep the process going, in hopes of negotiating more acceptable legislation in conference.
"We have reached the bottom line and the only question that remains is, do we go forward or do we go backwards?" said Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.). "Nobody gets everything they want in a bill, especially one as contentious as this bill. But if we can pass a bill we can get it to conference where the real bill will be written."
Other Republicans and their allies saw suspicious motives behind the Democratic tactics. "The anti-gun faction overwhelmingly voted against final passage because it is much more interested in the politics of the gun issue than in reaching a compromise and enacting workable background checks for all firearm sales at gun shows," said James J. Baker, chief lobbyist for the NRA, which supported final passage of the bill.
Only 10 Democrats voted in favor of the final bill, with even Dingell voting against it. By contrast, 82 Republicans voted against it.
For all the bickering yesterday, lawmakers in both parties cautioned the issue is not dead. Later this summer, lawmakers from both the House and Senate will meet to work out a final version of juvenile justice legislation.
The House approved its own juvenile offenders bill Thursday, and while it does not include the gun provisions the comparable Senate bill includes, House conferees could theoretically accept gun lock and ammunition clip measures, both of which now appear to enjoy substantial bipartisan support in the House. "With the [margin of the House] vote on trigger-locks, it's assured of being on the final bill," Davis said.
Senate Democrats indicated they will push hard in conference for the Senate-approved restrictions, including mandatory background checks for sales at gun shows. Any House-Senate compromise "will have to include strong provisions on guns," said a Senate Democratic leadership aide.
If they remain united, the 45-member Democratic minority could filibuster any House-Senate conference agreement that did not include gun curbs. Many Democrats were cool at best to other aspects of the juvenile justice bill and supported it only because of the gun provisions. But aides to key Democratic senators said it was too early to speculate on a post-conference strategy.
"Maybe this has ended up in such a heap" that the GOP majority will be shamed into reviving some legislation, said White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta. "They should do it over and do it right. We're going to keep pressing until we get this thing into law."
For Republicans, yesterday's outcome was a mixed blessing: While they prevailed on the Dingell amendment -- forcing some Democrats from marginal districts to go up against the NRA -- they were vulnerable to Democratic charges that they mishandled the legislation.
GOP leaders had taken a few steps in recent days on behalf of the gun bill, but they were largely half-hearted. Hastert pulled a measure raising the minimum age for handgun purchase and possession from 18 to 21 in the early morning hours of Friday so as not to alienate conservative Republicans, and began urging moderates to vote for final passage while Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) worked on enlisting conservatives on the bill.
But DeLay said he was satisfied with the outcome of the week, suggesting he was delighted that the juvenile justice bill passed while the gun measures went down.
"It's a great personal victory for me," DeLay told reporters.
Staff writers Roberto Suro, Helen Dewar, Spencer S. Hsu and John F. Harris contributed to this report.
HOW THEY VOTED
Gun control bill
Yes: 147 No: 280
Dem. 10 Dem. 198
GOP 137 GOP 82
Gun show amendment
Yes: 218 No: 211
Dem. 45 Dem. 164
GOP 173 GOP 47
CAPTION: Reps. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), left, Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), in white jacket; Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), hidden; Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.); and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) celebrate after the House rejected a gun control bill that they felt weakened controls on sales at gun shows.
CAPTION: House Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.), seated left, and Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) talk to reporters at post-vote news conference.
CAPTION: House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), with Rep. Tillie Fowler (R-Fla.), said vote on juvenile justice bill was "a great personal victory for me."