Brady Gun-Control Bill Gains Ground in Congress

Gun lobbies say they no longer have the votes to block a major bill

THE Brady bill is probably going to pass because of the president we now have," complains Warren Center, inventor of the Thompson Center pistol, a single-shot weapon used by marksmen and hunters. "I have to endure four more years of him."

Mr. Center and other gun enthusiasts in New Hampshire, where buying a pistol in a store takes less than 10 minutes, are upset by President Clinton's promise to sign the Brady Bill, which requires a five-day waiting period and background check by law enforcement before a purchase can be made. But for Sarah Brady's Handgun Control Inc. (HCI), which has pushed for the bill's passage for years, Mr. Clinton's support is a powerful weapon against the National Rifle Association.

"We're very optimistic.... This really is the first time that we have ever had a sitting president who has run on his support for this issue," says Susan Whitmore, an HCI spokeswoman. "But anytime you are up against the NRA, which has over $100 million to spend, [it] can make things difficult."

"Members of Congress are now beginning to be more aware of how much public support there is - even among gun owners - for the Brady bill," says Nancy Coffey, spokeswoman for Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D) of Ohio, who reintroduced the bill Feb. 24. It passed Congress last year but died at session's end when Republicans threatened to filibuster a crime bill.

Even though this is not an easy time for the NRA, a spokesman says the group has the support of 200 congressmen and 42 senators opposed to gun control. That is not enough of a margin to defeat a major gun bill in Congress, says Neal Knox, executive director of Firearms Coalition, a gun-advocate group in Rockville, Md.

On March 15, the NRA suffered a setback when the New Jersey Senate voted to keep the May 1990 law that bans semiautomatic rifles in the state. Other bad news for the NRA is the report that Hillary Rodham Clinton is considering a tax hike on firearms to raise revenue for her health-care reforms. Currently, a 10 percent federal tax is levied on handguns and an 11 percent tax on other firearms.

Despite the fact that every day 65 Americans are killed in handgun violence, Ms. Whitmore says 24 states allow people to buy any weapon without restriction.

The NRA favors an instant computerized background check - now used in Virginia, Florida, Delaware, Wisconsin, and Illinois - without the waiting period.

Whitmore says each year in California - which has a 15-day waiting period - the state stops 6,000 criminals who try to buy firearms at gun shops. Steve Whitener, spokesman for Gun Owners of America in Springfield, Va., disagrees. Citing a Justice Department survey, he says 93 percent of felons obtained guns "off the record," not from shops.

"The real purpose of the Brady Bill is to reduce the number of guns available to law-abiding citizens, not to reduce the number of criminals," says Ralph Demicco, owner of Riley's Sport Shop Inc. in Hooksett, N.H., the state's largest gun store. In this state, police conduct a background check after a pistol is sold. Under this system, Mr. Demicco says, there were only 40 illegal purchases by felons out of some 50,000 handguns he has sold in 20 years.

"I live in Maryland, where there is a seven-day waiting period," says Mr. Knox, a marksman and gun collector. On average, he says, it takes three weeks to buy a handgun.

"The slight inconvenience [of the waiting period and background check] for somebody pales in comparison with the inconvenience suffered by victims of gun violence," Whitmore says.

She hopes if everything goes well, the bill will reach Clinton before October. Once it is passed, HCI will push for a ban on military-type semiautomatic rifles, which account for 10 percent of all firearms traced to United States crimes, she notes.

"That's not true," Knox says. Only 1 percent to 2 percent of weapons used in crimes are semiautomatics, according to a Federal Bureau of Investigation survey on crime statistics.

This dispute shows a problem of the gun-control issue: Both sides are engaged in number games to justify their cause. A 1991 congressional research paper on military-style semiautomatics questions numbers HCI uses because the group's data contain only a small sample of semiautomatics confiscated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. These weapons were not necessarily used in crimes, the study states.

Demicco says in the past three years, only 4 out of 204 guns from his shop traced by police as stolen or used in a crime were semiautomatics. "It is reasonable to ban ... semiautomatic rifles if they are frequently used in crimes as HCI claims," Knox notes. However, the most commonly used guns in crimes are pistols. "If the gun-control groups say they want to ban handguns, at least they are honest. But they don't want to say that because it is not politically popular," Knox says.

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