Clinton praises House lawmakers over decision on gun safety legislation
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bill Clinton praised lawmakers Thursday for their decision to move forward on gun safety legislation that has been bogged down for the past eight months.
"The House took a small but significant step down the long road toward common sense gun safety legislation," the president said Thursday morning prior to his departure for Capitol Hill, where he was scheduled to attend a St. Patrick's Day luncheon hosted by House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois).
President Clinton spoke to the press Thursday before heading up to Capitol Hill.
The House of Representatives on Wednesday afternoon voted in favor of a non-binding resolution requiring legislators to resume work on a final bill. Lawmakers have kept the juvenile justice bill -- which contains the gun safety provisions -- in limbo for eight months, ever since the Senate and House passed separate versions last summer.
The president has been urging legislators to get the process moving again, and has recently clashed with leaders of the National Rifle Association in a series of heated exchanges over the past week.
"The clock is ticking and America is waiting to see if Congress can really produce a bill that responds to the interests of our children and not the intimidation of the NRA," the president said.
Both the president and House Democrats have said they would like to resolve the differences on the bill before April 20, the one-year anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado.
A final bill, the president said, should contain provisions that would require background checks for purchases made at gun shows, as well as child safety locks on new handguns and a ban on the importation of large capacity ammunition clips.
Clinton added that he hoped House and Senate conferees would also "restore the provision that holds adults responsible if they knowingly or recklessly allow access to guns."
But a particular sticking point is the timing of the gun show background check. Some Republicans are seeking to require checks be completed within 24 hours, while Democrats have proposed a 72-hour check.
"House members from both parties said it's time to get to work after eight months," Clinton said Thursday. "The American people have spoken clearly and consistently about the need to protect our children from gun violence. The House is listening, but of course a meeting is just the beginning."
When pressed by reporters, the president said he did not know why the NRA has chosen to attack him so relentlessly on the gun issue. After his initial hesitation, he said: "I think they know that the majority of Americans support this bill, and if it goes before Congress it will pass."
Over the past week in particular, the NRA has stepped up its attacks on the Clinton Administration over the proposed gun legislation. The gun lobby claims that before the administration enacts more restrictions on guns, it should enforce existing federal gun laws.
"I suppose I should be glad because they are kind of unmasked, but it's always kind of sad to me when one of these fights turns real mean and personal," the president said Wednesday night in Baltimore of the ongoing feud.
NRA President Wayne LaPierre said in a television interview Wednesday that because the administration has not enforced current laws, the president is responsible for the death of former Northwestern University basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong.
Byrdsong was gunned down by a white supremacist who was denied a gun because he failed a Brady background check, named after the former White House press secretary who was shot in an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981 and who long lobbied for mandatory criminal background checks for handgun purchases. Police say the suspect in the Byrdsong case nonetheless obtained a gun elsewhere and went on a rampage that left two dead.
"To try to take a case like that where actually the Brady bill worked, and if we had more comprehensive checking so that no one could sell a gun without a Brady background check, we'd have an ever safer society, is not a very good argument for the other side to make," Clinton told reporters Thursday.
He added that the administration has requested additional resources for background checks, "but we've also tried to do it in a sensible way that left a lot of the burden of the criminal law where it belongs, with the local prosecutors."
"I think it's truly ironic that the NRA is now criticizing us for not throwing everybody in jail that fails a Brady background check when they opposed the Brady bill. If it had been up to them, we wouldn't be doing these background checks, and 500,000 more felons, fugitives and stalkers would have handguns."
The mandatory background check has stopped more than 500,000 attempted gun purchases since it was first passed in 1994, Justice Department officials said Wednesday. Since the beginning of the year, 27,862 gun purchases have been denied.
CNN's Terry Freiden contributed to this report.