Brian Malte, an official with Handgun Control Inc., whispered some last-minute advice: "Make sure you ask about the 24-hour rule." Then Ben Gelt launched his career as a teenage gun control lobbyist, accosting a surprised Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.) in front of the Capitol steps.
"Mr. Barr, we need gun laws that are easy to understand and easy to enforce," said Gelt, 18, a recent graduate of East High School in Denver.
"If we only had laws that were easy to enforce, we wouldn't have many laws," replied Barr, a board member of the National Rifle Association.
Welcome to Washington, kid. Gelt and about 90 other Colorado students -- including a few from Columbine High School in Littleton, the site of the horrific April massacre -- descended on the Capitol yesterday to push for gun restrictions. Today, the young members of Sane Alternatives to the Firearms Epidemic (SAFE) will meet with President Clinton, Vice President Gore and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). They will also fan out to lobby individual members of Congress and will hold a news conference to unveil their gun control plan.
Yesterday afternoon, before a tour of the Capitol, a reception with their state delegation and a trip to the Mall, they got their first chance to grill Barr and Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.). Last month, both lawmakers voted against stringent gun-control measures and for the "24-hour rule" that would have the effect of relaxing background checks at gun shows.
The students showed an impressive knowledge of the issue; for example, when Barr suggested that stricter enforcement of existing laws could have helped prevent the Columbine shootings, Denver student David Winkler pointed out that three of the four guns used there were purchased legally. And they were clearly trained to stay on message, repeating their mantra of fewer gun laws with fewer loopholes. But they knew they were preaching to the anti-choir, and they seemed fairly realistic about their ability to change minds.
"I think most people here are set in their ways," said Jill Boyd, 18, a recent graduate of Berthoud High School, 40 miles north of Denver. "They're good at avoiding questions."
In fact, as Barr addressed the students -- politely, seriously, but not quite directly -- he almost sounded like a gun control advocate himself. Then again, the students did downplay their support for tough background checks and stricter liability laws when they spoke to him. "I think that's a very good suggestion," Barr said, after Winkler made his pitch. "I'd like you to write that up in a letter, and I'll tell you how to make sure it gets to me."
"We know our views aren't congruent," Winkler said.
"Probably not that far apart," Barr replied.
Yesterday, congressional Democrats continued their push for gun control in the House, trying unsuccessfully to tack restrictions onto an unrelated appropriations bill. Meanwhile, House GOP leaders said they expect some gun control measures to emerge from upcoming House-Senate compromise talks on the controversial juvenile justice bill, even though the House version of the bill has no gun language. First, though, the Republican leaders must name members to hold those talks, something they have said they would do by the end of the week.
For now, the issue is still stalled on Capitol Hill, which is just fine with Barr. But before he returned to his office, he thanked the students for "getting involved."
"We'd really like to see a simple set of laws that can be enforced and understood," Winkler said once again before Barr left.
"That's an interesting concept for Washington, D.C.," Barr said with a wry smile.