WASHINGTON — `IT'S a thumbs-up day,'' said a smiling Rep. Charles Schumer, demonstrating with his right thumb. ``A big thumbs-up day,'' corrected a smiling Jim Brady, returning the gesture.
Minutes earlier the House subcommittee on crime and criminal justice, chaired by Mr. Schumer, a New York Democrat, had earned its thumbs-up signs by passing this year's major gun-control bill. It is named for former Reagan press secretary Brady, wounded in the assassination attempt on Mr. Reagan a decade ago.
Subcommittee approval was the first formal step this year for the bill along the always-perilous road any gun-control measure must follow to congressional enactment. Later this month comes full House Judiciary Committee consideration, with approval considered virtually certain. After that it's on to the full House, which did not vote on the issue in the last Congress.
In the past two weeks the dynamics of the gun-control issue have shifted markedly to the benefit of the bill, with Reagan's surprising endorsement of it, after a decade of opposition to any gun control. The former president now calls the measure's seven-day waiting period for a background check of would-be handgun purchasers ``just plain common sense.''
Through aides President Bush then indicated he, too, might be willing to drop his opposition to the measure provided Congress approved the main Bush anticrime measure, the Comprehensive Violent Crime Act. The day before the subcommittee vote he publicly reiterated this position through a letter from Attorney General Dick Thornburgh to chairman Schumer. (The letter also cited three specific administration concerns about the legislation.)
Following the subcommittee vote Schumer, in a hallway conversation, rejected the idea of trying to strike a deal ``at the moment'' with the president, to ensure that both measures would pass Congress. House proponents of the Brady bill, sponsored by Rep. Edward Feighan (D) of Ohio, are fairly confident that they can win what they acknowledge will be a close vote in the full House even without Bush's support. ``I think we're OK'' in the House, Schumer said.
``It has all the elements of success,'' says Rep. Connie Morella (R) of Maryland, an original cosponsor of the measure. She defines them as:
Support from Mr. Reagan.
Inability of the major alternative, an immediate instant check of the background of purchasers, to be nationally viable for several years.
A provision in the Brady bill that permits instant background checks to supersede the seven-day waiting period when they do become feasible.
Evidence that similar credential checks for gun purchasers work in states that have tried them.
If the building momentum were to propel the measure through both houses of Congress, and if Mr. Bush were to sign it, that still would leave the question of how well it would work. Not very well, warns Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida: ``It isn't going to accomplish its intended objectives'' of keeping handguns from criminals by rooting out felons and others ineligible to purchase them. Name checks of would-be purchasers, whether conducted instantly or over seven days, are not accurate enough, he warns . Needed are more accurate law enforcement records than at present, and a foolproof way - such as fingerprints - of assuring a purchaser's identity.