SULLIVAN’S CRUSADES / HANDGUNS NEXT? : Activist Secretary of Health Sets His Sights on Weapons : He views side arms as a hazard, especially for blacks. Action would likely draw swift response from NRA.


Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis W. Sullivan has already made himself conspicuous in the Bush Administration by crusading against smoking and alcoholism. Now he is pondering an even more controversial step: drawing a bead on the nation’s gun lobby.

That would pit him against one of the most powerful special interests in the capital, one with especially close ties to the Administration. The President, after all, is a member of the National Rifle Assn. and an avowed opponent of gun control.

Yet Sullivan, the lone black in the Bush Cabinet, made it clear in a recent interview that he considers handguns a health hazard, especially for blacks. Gun-related violence is “a public health problem in addition to being a criminal justice problem,” he said.


“I am very concerned about the high number of deaths from handguns in our society in general and certainly in the black community,” Sullivan said, “and would want to do everything that I could as secretary to discourage the use and availability of handguns because of that.”

Violence is the No. 1 cause of death for black males between the ages of 15 and 25, and about 80% of the cases involve handguns.

If Sullivan determines the nation’s public health would best be served by curbing handguns, he said, he would not hesitate to use his office as a bully pulpit to promote such legislation.

A reporter, suggesting the issue might be too sensitive politically, twice pressed Sullivan on whether he could see himself taking a stand on gun controls “that would be opposed to the President.” Twice the secretary replied, “Yes.”

Sullivan blossomed as a crusader on health issues only after a rocky first year as secretary. During his early months in the Cabinet, he deferred to White House demands on several issues, abandoned his own choice for a high-level position in the department, and was pressured into naming several conservatives to key positions. He also acted to mollify conservatives who questioned his stand on abortion.

Since then, Sullivan has demonstrated an independent streak. Among other things, he lashed out at a tobacco company for what he called a “slick and sinister” strategy of marketing a new brand of cigarette for black smokers. He also decried the “Tower of Babel” that consumers confront on grocery labels and proposed strict new federal nutrition standards on food labels.

Those are mere skirmishes compared to taking on the gun lobby.

So far, the NRA and its supporters have killed most gun-control measures, including a handgun waiting period bill named after former White House Press Secretary James S. Brady, who was paralyzed by gunshot wounds in the March 30, 1981, assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.

Yet momentum for curbs has been building, gun control advocates say. A December poll by Time magazine and Cable News Network found that 87% of Americans favor a seven-day waiting period on handgun purchases, as provided in the so-called Brady bill.

Last year, Congress declined to pass the bill, which would require a seven-day waiting period to give local police time to determine whether a prospective handgun purchaser is a convicted felon or otherwise ineligible to own a firearm under the 1968 Gun Control Act.

But the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on crime plans to take up the Brady bill again in about a month. An endorsement by Sullivan could have considerable impact, according to Rep. William J. Hughes (D-N.J.), chairman of the subcommittee, although he cautions that “the NRA is good at intimidating and they have the capacity to put 15,000 pieces of mail in your district overnight.”

The NRA and Republican conservatives are nettled by Sullivan’s comments on an issue they consider outside his purview. “It’s especially not a public health problem when guns are in the hands of law-abiding gun owners,” says James Baker, NRA’s chief federal lobbyist.

Despite such criticism, some conservatives believe Sullivan could endorse gun controls and survive in the Cabinet. Says Richard A. Viguerie, the veteran right-wing fund-raiser, “It’s not a litmus test Bush would fire him on. Sullivan probably feels--and rightly so--that in his heart the President doesn’t feel that strongly about it.”