Jewish World Review May 26, 1999 /11 Sivan 5759
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On a series of votes in the Senate, most Republicans joined the Democrats in voting for compelling gun dealers to provide child-safety trigger locks with each new handgun; for prohibiting juveniles from possessing assault weapons like AK-47s and Uzis; and for limiting the importation of high-capacity ammo clips. Then, as a final kick, a handful of GOPers bolted and joined the Democrats to force a tie on mandatory background checks on all sales at gun shows. Vice President Al Gore broke the 50-50 vote in a photo-op custom made to appeal to suburban moms.
(By the way, gun shows proliferated after the NRA in 1986 convinced Congress to pass what it called the “Firearms Owners Protection Act.” As if poor, beleaguered gun owners needed protection.)
This recent spasm of gun control was quite a change from 1997, when Sen. Orrin Hatch led the GOP in smothering a trigger-lock initiative. The outbreak of politically inspired reasonableness even included House Speaker Denny Hastert, who declared his support for modest gun-control proposals. After the Republicans’ idiotic vote against gun-show background checks sparked outrage two weeks ago, the GOP fell into retreat and it was bye-bye NRA, at least for the moment.
Charlton Heston’s gun-rights posse took a sock to the jaw, but there’s plenty of legislative maneuvering to transpire before any of this becomes law. Those wily lobbyists of the gun lobby—which pumped $8.4 million into congressional candidates’ coffers between 1991 and 1998, with 80 percent going to Republicans—will have angles to play in the back rooms of the Capitol as the House takes up these various gun-control proposals. With focus shifting toward the House—and Democrats calling for quick action to take advantage of the rout in the Senate—Majority Whip Tom “the Hammer” DeLay remarked, “We are a deliberative body. We want to take our time and do it right.” In non-Washington-speak, that means, “We’re still looking for a way out of this jam without actually approving any significant gun control legislation.”
The Hestonites, who decried the Democrats for passing bills that would not have prevented the Littleton massacre, are right in one sense: These measures are not likely to cause a dramatic decrease in gun violence in the United States. They’re small steps. Where are the calls for regulating the gun industry? Or for registering and titling all handguns? What’s shocking is how skewed to the right the gun debate remains. For instance, the authors of the trigger-lock bill didn’t dare include mandatory standards for the devices. Because guns, unlike children’s pajamas, are an unregulated product, there is no government agency that will craft such standards. And not all the gun-control measures were adopted in the recent Senate debate. The GOP was able to beat back Sen. Chuck Schumer’s amendment to restrict gun sales over the Internet. “Welcome. You’ve got guns.”
Even for those familiar with the excesses of the NRA a trip to the outfit’s website is instructive. The group lists legislation it tags as “anti-gun bills.” Included on the roster are a bill that bans the transfer of a gun to an “intoxicated person”; a measure that offers federal assistance to cities and states that mount gun buy-back programs; legislation requiring purchasers of restricted explosives to provide identifying photographs and fingerprints; and a bill that regulates the manufacture, importation and sale of bullets that can slice through police body armor. It seems the NRA favors letting drunks handle guns containing cop-killer bullets, while it opposes turn-in-your-gun initiatives and the tightening of controls on restricted explosives.
And these guys—with their Tom Selleck and Tom Clancy ads—portray themselves as mainstream Americans?
The derogatory term “gun nut” contains a measure of truth. I witnessed this firsthand last week, when I had the occasion to go mano-a-mano on television with Sen. Bob Smith, a New Hampshire Republican. Smith is a beyond-long-shot contender for the GOP nomination (in polls he places at the bottom in his own state) and a gun-rights purist. He voted against gun show checks, against restricting Internet arms sales, against an import ban on high-capacity clips, against trigger locks and, in a 96-2 vote, against prohibiting juvenile possession of AK-47s and Uzis. (He was joined in the last vote by Wyoming Republican Michael Enzi.) Smith is on the NRA’s dream team. “Do you think,” I asked him, “there is no problem whatsoever with easy availability of guns [for] children and [for] criminals?” He didn’t answer the question. “If my sin is to stand up for the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution,” he said, “I’m glad to do it.” Again, I inquired if he believed there was any reason to worry about the availability of guns. Again, he ducked and hid behind the Second Amendment. I shifted gears and asked, “Is it okay at gun shows to sell guns without doing any background checks?”
Apparently so; all he did was complain about the inconvenience of such checks. Yes, as Smith demonstrated, there are gun extremists who consider trigger locks to be a government-imposed “punishment” upon the citizenry. (That’s the same as claiming seat belts are a punishment.) It is telling that Smith, the most dependable gun ally in the Senate, has another cause these days: He’s been talking about leading a right-wing, third-party charge on the White House. Why? Because he feels the GOP of Trent Lott and Orrin Hatch is not sufficiently conservative. And, as Smith sees it, the GOP’s kowtowing on gun control is one more reason to lead a rebellion of the right.
The NRA and its diehard allies do reside on another planet, and I say this as someone who has enjoyed recreational rifle shooting. They cannot for an instant concede that America has even the slightest gun problem.
When Tom Selleck, a pitchman for the NRA, appeared on Rosie O’Donnell’s show last week, the gum-chewing hostess tried to engage him in a debate on gun control. “We have to register cars,” O’Donnell squawked, “why shouldn’t we register guns?” Selleck, like Smith, couldn’t take the bullet head-on. He mouthed some pap about guns being “a really contentious issue” and urged the country not to rush to pass legislation at a time of national mourning. (Sounds like he’s in sync with DeLay’s delay.) O’Donnell asked Selleck if he bears any responsibility for NRA actions since he allows the group to use his famous name and visage in its ads. He retorted with a nonsequitur: “Now you’re questioning my humanity.”
At least Selleck was touchy. Smith showed no shame at all. But most of the GOP can read a poll. The public mood is not on the side of the gun-huggers.
(It probably didn’t help the cause when Pat Buchanan’s mentally deranged brother broke into the home of Cody Shearer, a Clinton loyalist, and threatened two houseguests with a gun before fleeing, or when Peter Robbio, then the New Hampshire manager of the Steve Forbes campaign, was arrested a month ago for brandishing a handgun at a restaurant in downtown Manchester.)
GOP leaders realize that they came to power in the 1994 elections with the assistance of the Guns R Us crowd. With the House elections of 2000 expected to be close, the party cannot afford to blow off the gun loons. The Republicans are going to have to hold onto their trigger-happy supporters while not alienating sane voters.
Bob Smith and the NRA will make that tough task even
05/20/99: Combat Pay