The House, under heavy pressure from the powerful National Rifle Assn., overwhelmingly passed legislation Thursday that would weaken the national gun law for the first time since it was enacted after the 1968 assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
The bill, approved on a bipartisan 292-130 vote, had been the center of a fierce political struggle between the NRA and law enforcement organizations, which had branded it a “cop killer.” The police groups won their bid to include in the bill a ban on the interstate sale of handguns but lost on most of the other changes they had sought.
The legislation, which would provide a number of changes in existing law, would override thousands of state and local measures that impede the transportation of firearms from one area to another, lighten record-keeping requirements on gun dealers and restrict the ability of federal officials to conduct surprise investigations of gun dealers.
“Congress let us down,” complained Jerry Vaughn, executive director of the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police. He warned that congressmen who voted for the bill would feel a political backlash: “We’re going to remind congressmen repeatedly.
“I don’t think we’re going to quickly forget the tactics used here” by the rifle association, which had been a traditional ally of law enforcement groups, he said.
However, NRA spokesman Wayne R. La Pierre Jr. hailed passage of the bill as “a major victory in protecting honorable citizens who have to live under the law.” It provided “the key reforms that sportsmen needed,” he said.
The Senate approved similar legislation last summer and is expected to accept the changes made to the bill by the House and send it to President Reagan for his signature. Rep. Harold L. Volkmer (D-Mo.), the bill’s chief sponsor, urged the Senate to “take it and run with it.” Reagan, a lifetime NRA member, has expressed support for the bill.
Supporters had actively lobbied for seven years for the bill, claiming that the existing law places too many restrictions on law-abiding citizens who carry guns for sport or protection. In addition, they argued that its sanctions had been an ineffective deterrent to criminals who are willing to risk far greater penalties for robbery or murder.
The emotion-laden bill had been “bottled up” for years by a hostile House Judiciary Committee, which had agreed to bring it before the full House only after a majority of congressmen signed a discharge petition, a rarely used procedure that bypasses the normal committee system to force a vote.
Rep. William J. Hughes (D-N.J.), a former prosecutor who had led the fight against the bill, said that many of its provisions “will come back to haunt us.” With fewer records of gun sales available, for example, “you’re going to see a major proliferation of handguns that are not traceable. . . . The one thing a criminal wants to secure is a handgun that’s not traceable,” Hughes said.
Many opponents of the bill had conceded that the complex and confusing law has been unduly burdensome on hunters who want to transport unloaded rifles. But they questioned whether laws should be eased for easily concealable handguns.
The congressmen rejected an amendment that would have forbidden transportation of handguns into areas where local governments have banned such transportation. “That scares me,” Hughes said. “Any time you proliferate handguns in cars, you put police officers in jeopardy.”
Among the measure’s other provisions is one that would allow sportsmen and others who do not buy and sell guns as their jobs to sell and trade firearms without going through licensed dealers, who must keep detailed records of such transactions.
The legislation would not specifically overrule municipal ordinances banning ownership of handguns, but would allow transportation of guns by non-residents through communities that have such laws.
However, the House approved, 232 to 185, an amendment maintaining the existing ban on interstate handgun sales. In its original form, the bill would have allowed sales to non-residents of the state in which the sale occurred if the dealer complied with the laws of the purchaser’s home area. However, opponents argued that individual dealers could not be expected to know the details of 23,000 state and local gun laws.
“That (amendment banning interstate handgun sales) was the one we really wanted, and we got it,” said Sarah Brady, one of the most highly visible lobbyists against the bill. Her husband, White House Press Secretary James S. Brady, was disabled by a bullet aimed at Reagan in a 1981 assassination attempt.
The House also passed on a voice vote an amendment banning the sale of new machine guns. Under the legislation, no one could gain possession of or transfer an automatic weapon, although anyone already owning such a weapon would be permitted to keep it.
The measure also, like existing law, would require forfeiture of any firearm or ammunition involved in, used or intended for use in a violation of the law, but it would limit forfeiture to those weapons individually identified as used in specified crimes. And after an acquittal, a weapon would have to be returned to the owner.
However, time allotted for debate expired before Hughes could put forward other amendments.