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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Political gunplay

The Senate passes the first major gun-control bill in six years. Did Littleton really change everything?

By James Carney and John F. Dickerson

May 24, 1999
Web posted at: 10:28 a.m. EDT (1428 GMT)

TIME magazine

There is almost no such thing as a vice-presidential moment of high drama, so when Al Gore sat up particularly straight in the Senate president's chair and called twice for the recorded vote tally, it was clear he was relishing this one. For two weeks Senate Democrats had had their Republican rivals in retreat over gun-control legislation. Gore, the presumptive nominee, was called in to deliver the final blow. A Democrat-backed measure to impose restrictions on firearm sales at gun shows had been given new momentum by news of another school shooting that morning, but when the votes were counted, the 100 Senators had split evenly. Gore began his intonations: "The Senate being equally divided, the Vice President votes in the affirmative, and the amendment is agreed to." Striding afterward into the office of Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, Gore was met with muscular arm clasps by his Democratic cohort. "This is fantastic," beamed the Vice President. "That was really fun."

It was clear from Gore's end-zone dance in the press gallery moments later that the man who has recently seemed so politically out of synch feels blessed to have been in just the right place at the right time. Even his political mentor, President Clinton, admired the exquisite timing of his move. Aboard Air Force One bound for Colorado, where he was scheduled to comfort the families of the Littleton shooting victims on the one-month anniversary of the tragedy, he rose halfway out of his seat and pumped his fist. "That's great," he said, pausing for a moment to let the political significance sink in. "It's great for Al."

A national political landscape that had seemed settled on gun matters in recent years has suddenly been given a new topography in the wake of the Colorado and Georgia shootings. Democrats like Gore and his rival, former Senator Bill Bradley, are sure that gun control is a winning issue. And their best evidence is perhaps the confusion in the enemy ranks. First the majority of Senate Republicans voted against requiring mandatory background checks at gun shows. They then voted for it. Elizabeth Dole applauded herself for her move advocating controls two weeks ago. "These events demonstrate why it's so important to speak from the heart, take consistent stands and then have the courage to follow them through," she said.

That was her way of directing the spotlight at the microconfusion inside the camp of her party's front runner for President, Texas Governor George W. Bush. His staff started the week quashing rumors that Bush, fearful of being labeled the presidential candidate of the pro-gun party, had urged his brethren in Congress to embrace gun control. Bush had talked to Senator Larry Craig of Idaho, the N.R.A.'s main defender in the Senate, but it was only to deny the claim made by the Democrats that Bush favored their party's amendment supporting mandatory background checks at gun shows. It was true, Bush told Craig, that he had long been on record supporting such checks, but he had not endorsed the Democratic proposal for doing so, hadn't even seen their amendment and didn't want a role in the congressional debate.

Funny thing about being a front runner though, someone is always trying to give you a role in their debate. So far, Bush has resisted being drawn into national moments, like this one on gun control, choosing instead to sit on his lead until mid-June, when he plans to take his first presidential trips. But Dole, his closest Republican challenger, is trying hard to prick him into action. In a speech she was scheduled to deliver this Monday, she said, "Leadership requires more than sitting on a front porch measuring which direction the gunsmoke is blowing." Until he began preparing a presidential run, Bush's position on most gun-control measures had been clear: he was against them. He signed a bill permitting Texans to carry concealed handguns, and he opposes compelling gun retailers to include child safety locks with every weapon they sell, putting him to the right of many Senate Republicans. And in the next two weeks Bush plans to sign into law a bill forbidding local governments in Texas to sue gun manufacturers--a law opponents call "the N.R.A. protection act."

Bush's pro-gun stands are politically rational in Texas, where hunting is part of the state's culture and owning a firearm as common as owning a pickup. But Bush's team knows that Gore and other Democrats are salivating at the prospect of painting the Governor as a tool of the gun lobby in a general election. After the Senate vote, Bush joked that if he were in office, his Vice President would have voted for the Republican version of the gun-control measures. He also defended his concealed-carry law as the kind of "reasonable" legislation that he might support as a President. "There are people in our society who feel threatened," he said, "and they feel like they want to protect themselves."

House Republicans have been dazzled by the bungling of their Senate counterparts whose various and sometimes contradictory positions on gun control a House Republican aide called "too complicated for Kafka." To let the issue cool, House G.O.P. leaders have put off debate until the middle of June in the hopes that lobbying by the N.R.A. and the passage of time will make it easier to enact less stringent legislation. Speaker Dennis Hastert has expressed a willingness to tighten gun laws: increasing the purchase age from 18 to 21 and requiring background checks for all sales at gun shows. But Democrats fear majority leader Dick Armey and whip Tom DeLay will work to declaw any final legislation. So Democrats have set their teeth, demanding action before Memorial Day as a tribute to the victims in Littleton. Emerging from a Friday meeting with the President, in which they coordinated their gun-control strategy, House Democrats nearly climbed over one another to express their indignation. "How many people have to die before Congress can act?" demanded New York's Nita Lowey. Republicans are adamant that they will not be budged off their schedule. Isn't this how it all started?

--With reporting by Jay Branegan with Clinton in Littleton


Cover Date: May 31, 1999

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