The House Wednesday handily defeated several amendments designed to curb legislation that would ease the nation’s gun control laws, demonstrating in several lopsided votes that opposition from law enforcement groups carried little weight against a drive for the bill by the powerful National Rifle Assn.
However, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) abruptly postponed until today the final vote on the legislation, as well as a series of additional amendments. O’Neill cited budgetary strain from overtime pay to Capitol employees, including security personnel, who would have had to work during a debate that could have stretched well into Wednesday night.
The bill’s opponents expressed little hope that the additional time would change the outcome.
“The die has been cast,” conceded Rep. William J. Hughes (D-N.J.), who is leading the effort to defeat the bill. But he expressed hope of winning on several coming amendments, including one that would ban interstate sale of handguns.
In a dramatic display, dozens of uniformed police chiefs, patrolmen and state troopers from across the nation lined the halls of the Capitol through which lawmakers pass to cast their votes. Ironically, many wore empty holsters, because they had been made to surrender their side arms as they entered the building.
For the most part, they were silent as congressmen filed past. Relatively few congressmen walking to and from the House Chamber made eye contact with the assembled policemen.
A similar version of the measure, known as the McClure-Volkmer bill for Senate sponsor James A. McClure (R-Ida.) and House sponsor Harold L. Volkmer (D-Mo.), passed the Senate overwhelmingly last summer.
Led by the 3-million-member NRA, supporters of the legislation maintain that the existing gun law, which was passed after Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated in 1968, is too burdensome on those who lawfully own and carry guns for sport and protection. Moreover, they argue, gun laws are an ineffective deterrent against criminals who are willing to risk much stronger penalties for murder and robbery.
Their legislation would change existing law in a number of ways. It would permit over-the-counter purchases of handguns by people who do not live in the state of purchase; safeguard interstate transportation of unloaded weapons, which now is often impeded by 23,000 state and local gun laws, and lighten record-keeping requirements on gun dealers. It also would restrict the ability of federal officials to conduct surprise inspections of gun dealers.
However, opponents say that the bill amounts to a “cop-killer,” because it would make weapons more readily available and more difficult to trace. While many acknowledge a need to loosen restrictions on the interstate sale and transport of hunting rifles, they object to making it easier to carry and buy easily concealable handguns across state lines.
An amendment that would have addressed these objections and others as a package was defeated by a 248-176 vote.
Opponents then fell back on a strategy of calling for a series of votes on their individual objections but it appeared that this approach as well would meet with little success when an amendment making interstate transportation more difficult failed, 242 to 177.
States’ Rights Issue
California Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Long Beach), arguing for the amendment, noted that the bill would override a myriad of state and local laws against carrying concealed weapons. He said that many of his fellow conservatives aligned against the amendment were staunch advocates of states’ rights, and added: “We should tread very, very lightly when we are superseding state and local laws.”
Rep. James H. Scheuer (D-N.Y.) said that at a time the House was trying to find a means to combat terrorism, it was considering legislation that was “the dream of terrorists worldwide, the dream of Moammar Kadafi.” He warned that the bill could allow terrorists to “overrun our country with guns that can’t be detected in the hands of madmen.”
Law enforcement organizations, which have allied with the NRA in the past, joined the opposition in a heavy lobbying effort against the bill.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. said that the police had mobilized because “they realize that 700 (police) have been killed (by firearms) in the last decade, and they wonder if they might be next.”
However, Rep. Larry E. Craig (R-Ida.) reminded the House of the basic constitutional right to keep and bear arms and insisted: “What we are really talking about, I guess, are basic civil liberties. Ladies and gentlemen, the law does not belong to the nation’s police . . . it belongs to the nation’s citizens.”
Some congressmen acknowledged that choosing between the NRA and law enforcement put them in a difficult political position.
“I’m having to decide whether to shoot myself in the head or in the foot,” Rep. Don Bonker (D-Wash.) said. He voted for the amendment backed by law enforcement, but noted: “I have a rural, redneck district. I’m going to pay the price for it.”