While the federal gun control legislation heading toward enactment has been hailed as a major victory over the gun lobby, most of the proposed restrictions could be circumvented, and many will face further attempts to weaken them as they move through Congress.
Vice President Al Gore called the congressional backing for the gun regulation proposals a “turning point in the country” when he cast the tie-breaking Senate vote on May 20 for one of them. Gun rights advocates, however, are already seeking ways to get around them.
Gun control advocates say that, with the largely pro-gun-rights Republican Party running Congress, they have done the best they can and are now working overtime just to fend off attempts to water down the handful of new restrictions approved by the Senate.
For example, they fully expect gun rights forces in the House to again try to weaken a measure that would require private, unlicensed sellers at gun shows to do criminal background checks on their customers. In one Republican-backed proposal, gun control advocates contend, a buyer could, with a wink and nod, escape the background check by asking the seller to step outside, away from the show, to complete the sale.
Democrats, most of whom favor gun control, beat back that one in the Senate. But their alternative, which squeaked through on a 51-50 vote, also contained a last-minute compromise that would enable what advocates call “legitimate transactions” to occur after gun shows without background checks.
Such maneuvering over slivers of legal language will continue when the full House takes up the issue later this month. Gun rights forces are lobbying fiercely, in public and behind the scenes, to blunt the gun control drive.
“Nobody should be under any illusions to what’s going on here,” Gore said Thursday. “At this very moment, there are some on the other side meeting behind closed doors plotting . . . to preserve loopholes.”
That same day, the executive vice president of the National Rifle Assn., Wayne R. LaPierre, pleaded with a House panel to reject the Senate-approved gun show measure. “America will not tolerate further surrender of precious freedoms in return for nothing but . . . fictitious promises that make none of us safer.”
Since the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo., in April, Congress has been consumed with the gun issue. In many respects, though, the debate has focused on narrow issues, and the prospects of significant changes in how most guns are bought and sold are dim.
So far, gun rights advocates have stopped reforms such as imposing consumer product safety regulations on gun makers, limiting handgun purchases to one a month and raising the minimum age for handgun possession from 18 to 21.
Although a Senate-passed measure requiring manufacturers to provide safety locks with handguns seems headed toward approval in the House, gun rights advocates have deflected efforts to impose standards that would require manufacturers to provide tamper-proof locks.
And although the Senate move to crack down on gun shows would close a major loophole, gun show promoters and gun dealers predict that many of the private sellers affected by it will simply take their wares elsewhere--to cyberspace, to garage sales and to the advertising pages of newspapers and magazines.
“They are already selling them individually, and a lot of people are advertising in the paper,” said Jim Tanner, a longtime Denver gun show promoter whose exhibitors provided the guns that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris used in killing 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High. “And how are they going to make people do background checks in their homes?”
Nevertheless, some gun control advocates, while strongly endorsing the modest measures that have passed the Senate, lament that the Littleton shootings did not spur further action.
“The president has shown an outstanding lack of leadership and cobbled together a patchwork of warmed-over proposals,” said Kristen Rand, policy director for the Violence Policy Center, a Washington-based gun control research organization. “He could have seized this opportunity to make some bold proposals like regulating this industry like all others are.”
But the feeling in the Clinton administration and in Congress is that gun control forces took a major step toward preventing firearm violence, and that to push for more would have put the progress at risk and that the focus now has to be to preserve the measures the Senate approved as part of its juvenile justice bill.
At the White House, domestic policy advisor Bruce Reed strongly objected to Rand’s assessment and said President Clinton’s focus this year has been to try to slow the flow of guns to criminals and juveniles.
“The president has stuck his neck out ever since he took office on this issue,” Reed said, noting that Clinton signed a 1994 law banning the manufacture of some types of assault weapons. “Now our major priority in the House is to pass the Senate provisions without new loopholes and also raise the age for possessing handguns to 21.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a leading gun control advocate, said: “What you didn’t want to do was offer things you couldn’t pass. . . . There’s no question that there’s more work to do.”
The same calculus is likely to prevail in the House, where the Judiciary Committee last week took up the issue.
The shortcoming in the gun show measure is that it deals with just one segment of the vast “secondary market” for guns, which includes private, unregulated sales by someone other than a licensed dealer, whether from the trunk of a car or via the Internet. About 40% of the estimated 4.5 million gun sales a year are made in the secondary market, Duke University professor Philip J. Cook found in a 1995 study.
At most gun shows, a quarter or more of the exhibitors are private sellers who do not have federal licenses and thus are not required to check their customers for criminal backgrounds or keep detailed records of transactions. That’s why ex-cons, the mentally ill, drug addicts, fugitives and juveniles shop the secondary market.
Only two states, California and Pennsylvania, require all gun sales to go through federally licensed dealers so that the paperwork and background checks are done.
Gun shows are the most controversial source of illegal sales. A study by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms found that there were 4,452 gun shows last year.
In addition to criminal background checks, the restrictions would require gun show promoters to keep records on vendors and pay the government a registration fee. The measure broadly defines gun shows in an attempt to cover any yard sale, flea market, bazaar or other barter-or-sell gathering where guns play a significant role.
But if an airtight gun show bill emerges from Congress, many buyers are likely to start looking elsewhere in the secondary market, especially on the Internet.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) proposed to plug the cyberspace route for gun buyers by authorizing the federal government to oversee Internet gun sales. But his amendment was voted down.
Tanner, the Denver gun show promoter, said the gun show law may drive many exhibitors to such alternatives. “It could be devastating,” he said, noting that half of his exhibitors are private sellers. “Some have already suggested they will pull out. So, there will be more guns showing up on the black market.”
The only way to deal with that response, gun control advocates say, would be to require that all gun transactions, even those between relatives, be done through licensed gun dealers.
“Most people don’t have a problem with submitting to a background check,” said Ted Szajer, who, with his wife, Helene, owns L.A. Guns in Los Angeles. “We’ve been in business since 1992, and no one has complained. Private party sales should be banned.”
Gun control advocates say such a dramatic change in firearm laws will have to await a more receptive political climate in Congress.
Despite the gun show measure’s shortcomings, Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), its chief sponsor, said it would have an immediate, tangible effect. It takes aim, he said, at “hundreds of thousands of guns being bought by what I call ‘buyers anonymous.’ You can’t stop every illegal transaction. [But] the thought obviously is to reduce gun accessibility for those not entitled to have a gun.”
Not all gun rights advocates oppose the gun show bill or some of the other Senate measures. The American Shooting Sports Council, a gun manufacturers’ trade group that often parts ways with the NRA, backs the gun show bill.
“That’s a good one to help control crime, and crime control is good,” said Paul Jannuzo, vice president and general counsel of Glock Industries of Smyrna, Ga., which makes handguns.
He, like other members of the council, also supports a Senate-approved child safety lock measure, though he doubts it will do much good. “I don’t know if someone who is careless enough to leave a gun out would be responsible enough to use a lock if they were supplied one.”
Other measures approved by the Senate are likely to have modest impact, according to some gun control advocates.
One would prohibit juvenile possession of semiautomatic assault weapons, which are legal for them and for adults if the firearms were made before the 1994 assault weapon ban. But juveniles would still be allowed to own most other kinds of long guns.
Another bill pending in the Senate, but with little chance of passage, would authorize the federal government to impose safety and quality standards on gun makers, like those required of virtually every other industry.
The government imposes such standards on consumer products ranging from toys and toasters to cars and mattresses. It regulates toy guns but not real ones. The gun industry, primarily because of its powerful lobbying voice, has been exempted from such regulation.
Berry reported from Los Angeles and Anderson from Washington.
* FIREARMS BAN: The state Senate included thousands more firearms on a list of banned weapons. A3