WASHINGTON — PRESIDENT Clinton's signature Nov. 30 on the Brady bill puts the finishing touch on the first significant gun-control legislation to be enacted in 25 years.
It took seven years and, most important, the accession of a Democratic president willing to sign the bill, to put in place a mandatory five-day wait for the purchase of a handgun.
Susan Whitmore, spokeswoman for Handgun Control Inc., the lobbying group that pushed Brady through, calls the bill's passage ``a referendum on whether there will be gun control in America'' and ``the foundation upon which to build'' future limits on firearms.
Handgun Control Inc. can tap into rising public anxiety over crime to further its agenda. In addition, the Republican mayors of the nation's two largest cities both promised on Nov. 28 to campaign for tougher gun controls, in defiance of their party's stand on the issue.
But Congress doesn't change its stripes overnight, and passage of more stringent gun-control legislation is far from assured.
The National Rifle Association, with 3 million members who care fervently about their rights as gun owners, remains one of Washington's most powerful lobbies.
The NRA showed its mettle by delaying the Brady bill (named for former White House press secretary James Brady, critically wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan) for so long. Even though both sides agree the bill is at most a mild impediment to criminals who want a gun, it still took major arm-twisting from Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware to get the measure through the Senate.
THE next test of strength for each side comes in January, when House and Senate conferees will sit down to work out compromise anticrime legislation. As part of its broad package, the Senate on Nov. 17 approved, 56-43, an amendment by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California to ban the manufacture, sale, and possession of 19 assault weapons. The House has not even considered such a measure this session. The last time it did, in 1991, the measure was defeated.
``It's clear Biden will have to roll up his sleeves and fight a lot'' in conference, says an aide to the senator. But, he adds, referring to differences on assault weapons, ``It would be a mistake to set it up as a straw [man].''
Because the full House has not voted on assault weapons this session, and is not expected to before the conference starts, it is unlikely that that provision will survive the conference. Senate conferees could bargain it away in an effort to keep other provisions of their $22 billion package.
The aide to Senator Biden says that the assault weapons issue as a point in conference is more an ``intramural'' congressional issue than a true test on gun control. But, he agrees, in the wake of Brady's passage, that ``everything becomes a part of the larger picture.''
And, he says, the way the conference goes on assault weapons ``will give an indication of what comes next'' on gun control.
The NRA, for its part, is playing down its loss on Brady and has set its sights on what it considers a far more serious challenge: attempts to ban firearms, such as the Feinstein amendment.
The NRA conceded defeat on Brady because ``we were getting hammered on PR,'' says Tom Korologos, a top Washington lobbyist who works for the organization. ``We couldn't get our story told in the media.''
Joe Phillips, a staff lobbyist at the NRA, points out that his organization achieved major changes in the Brady bill before it was passed, namely the introduction of the ``instant check'' provision. In five years, the five-day waiting period will be replaced by a system that will allow gun dealers to check via computer to make sure a potential buyer is qualified to own a gun. Mr. Phillips is not confident that the Feinstein amendment would be defeated. ``We are loathe to take it for granted,'' he said.
The NRA has also backed off opposition to bills that would limit ownership of handguns by minors, in the face of unanimous support in Congress.
But there is lots more coming down the pike that the NRA cannot abide, and gun-control advocates are feeling emboldened to push their agenda. Among the measures on the table:
r One handgun a month. Modeled after a law passed in Virginia early this year, legislation has been introduced in the House and Senate to enact such a nationwide limit on purchases by a single individual. Implementation of the bill relies on the use of the instant check system prescribed under the Brady bill, so now that Brady has passed, this bill becomes more relevant.
r Increased taxes on handguns and ammunition. Like other ``sin'' taxes, the revenue would go for health-care reform.
r According to the Biden aide, there are also ideas ``floating around'' to require licensing and testing of gun-owners, the way people must be tested and licensed to drive a car.