WASHINGTON — JAMES Brady and his indefatigable wife, Sarah, give a supercharged start today to congressional consideration of this year's major gun-control bill. With the Bradys as its most influential witnesses, the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime holds this day its first hearing in two years on the proposal; it would require purchasers of handguns to wait seven days before actually obtaining the weapons.
From the wheelchair he has used since being wounded in the assassination attempt on President Reagan 10 years ago, former presidential press secretary Brady will tell Congress to pass the bill to safeguard freedoms in the United States - the freedom to walk the streets without fear, the freedom to send children to schools safe from gunfire.
In part because of the push from Mr. Brady's dramatic testimony, and the years of his wife's effective lobbying, the measure may make it all the way through the House this year. Last year it was approved by the Judiciary Committee but was never taken up by the full House. This year Speaker Thomas Foley has promised that he will schedule it for House action as soon as the committee approves it, which could come in April or May.
But it won't come without plenty of House debate. For one thing, there is the opposition of the powerful National Rifle Association. For another, an alternative measure gives legislators a basic choice: Which would be more effective in keeping guns from criminals - a seven-day waiting period or an instant background check, by telephone, of would-be purchasers?
Rep. Edward Feighan (D) of Ohio, sponsor of the waiting period, calls it "the most effective and least-expensive way to prevent criminals from buying cheap and easily concealable handguns." Mr. Feighan says that although an instant check is a good idea, being able to do it effectively is several years and $1 billion in the future, and cites Attorney General Dick Thornburgh as his source.
The instant check is most effective and feasible right now, says its sponsor last year, Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida. An instant check of the name of the purchaser can be done right at the present moment, Representative McCollum says: "With a telephone call we have the capacity right now to be able to check out, by name, whether somebody has a felony record." As evidence he points to the success of Virginia's state program, which is similar.
On one point Feighan and McCollum forces agree: Neither a seven-day waiting period nor an instant name check is a perfect solution. Results of a waiting period "are going to vary from state to state," admits a Feighan aide.
McCollum concedes that a foolproof instant identity check, using fingerprints, is years away. Last year he proposed that each driver's fingerprint be on his license, so that an instant fingerprint check could be done.
Feighan's waiting period proposal has backing from some Republicans this year, including ranking minority subcommittee member F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R) of Wisconsin, though fewer than last year. Rep. Howard Coble (R) of North Carolina, who voted for the Feighan proposal last year says he will vote against it this time, saying last year's vote was based on emotion. And in the initial subcommittee voting a second Republican backer of last year, Rep. D. French Slaughter Jr. (R) of Virginia, instead wi ll vote for the instant identity check.