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Congress Inches Toward Passing Gun Control Measure

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Against the backdrop of the latest killings to transfix the nation, Congress on Friday broke a months-long logjam and took a step toward passing gun control legislation before children return to school this fall.

In a 305-84 vote, the House directed its representatives on a House-Senate committee drafting juvenile justice legislation to include a provision requiring background checks for all purchasers of firearms sold at gun shows.

The legislation must “effectively preclude criminals and other prohibited purchasers . . . from obtaining firearms from nonlicensed persons and federally licensed firearms dealers at gun shows,” according to the nonbinding instructions.

The action was taken a day after an Atlanta gunman committed suicide after killing 12 people. It addressed the thorniest provision of gun control legislation that failed in the House earlier this summer in the wake of a shooting rampage at a Littleton, Colo., high school that took 15 lives.

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“With today’s vote, more than 300 of my colleagues finally joined the majority of the Senate in showing the courage to take on the [National Rifle Assn.] and enact tough bans on criminal purchases at gun shows, the biggest single loophole in our nation’s gun safety laws,” said Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the measure’s sponsor.

In the spring, the Senate passed several gun control provisions as part of its juvenile justice legislation, but both liberals and conservatives joined to kill the provisions in the House package.

Friday’s action was seen as a signal that, despite the earlier setback, the vast majority of House members still want some action.

But major obstacles remain to passing the legislation, including broad differences over how much time the police should be given to conduct the gun show background checks.

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The Senate measure would permit up to three business days for the checks and allow fees to be charged for processing them. Such checks are now required only of licensed gun dealers, not the many unlicensed vendors that sell at gun shows.

The NRA backed an alternative that would have required background checks for all gun show purchases but only in the first 24 hours.

Critics, including law enforcement officials, argued that that alternative would not allow enough time to identify felons, particularly since most gun shows take place on weekends, when court records are usually unavailable.

The House asked the conference committee to reach consensus on the measure next week so that both chambers can vote on it and send it to President Clinton before Congress’ August recess.

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GOP legislative aides cautioned, however, that prompt action on the legislation may be impossible, given the passions on both sides of the gun-control issue.

“As a supporter of the 2nd Amendment who also believes in the reasonable restriction of its exercise, I hope we will reach an accord to keep guns out of the hands of children and criminals,” said Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee who has supported gun control legislation in the past.

Gun control advocate Sarah Brady said that “Congress is finally doing the right thing.” Brady, chairwoman of Handgun Control Inc., the nation’s largest citizens’ gun-control lobbying group, said that she has “no doubt that the NRA may well make [passage of the legislation] impossible unless the public roars and roars now.”

If passed, the measure would represent the first new gun control legislation in five years. In addition to requiring as much as three business days for background checks on firearm transactions at gun shows and pawnshops, the Senate version of the bill also would require that all handguns be sold with a trigger lock or other safety device, would impose a lifetime ban on gun ownership for anyone convicted of a violent crime as a juvenile and would ban possession of semiautomatic assault weapons by juveniles.

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“We don’t know all of the facts from the Atlanta incident yet,” Conyers said, “but . . . we need a comprehensive system of background checks to keep this kind of person from buying a gun.”


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