WASHINGTON — SENATE majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine says he ``came very close'' to getting the National Rifle Association (NRA) to support the Brady gun-control legislation that was signed into law this week.
``But they didn't do so, and I told them I thought they were making a mistake, that they would be better off politically and substantively to support the legislation, because I felt it would pass anyway,'' Senator Mitchell told reporters at a Monitor lunch Wednesday.
As originally introduced in 1987, the Brady bill provided only for a waiting period - at that time, seven days - for handgun purchases. Mitchell opposed that bill, he said, because it was ``not well crafted'' and ``would not achieve its purpose.'' Meanwhile, the NRA had proposed as an alternative the introduction of an ``instant check'' system of criminal records to make sure guns weren't sold to people barred from buying them.
So 2 1/2 years ago, Mitchell says, he sat down with the Bradys -
James Brady, the presidential spokesman who was wounded in the assassination attempt on President Reagan, and his wife, Sarah - and the NRA and combined their two proposals. That package, a waiting period (set ultimately at five days) and an eventual computerized instant-check system, is now law, and will take effect in six months.
Joe Phillips, an NRA lobbyist, agrees that his organization was close to supporting the Brady bill that included the instant-check provision. If Congress had agreed to a provision allowing the bill to preempt any state laws that call for stricter limits on handguns, such as California's 15-day waiting period, the NRA would have backed Brady, Mr. Phillips says. ``I'm not going to tell you I heard him say he would [back preemption],'' he says, ``but it was my understanding that he did.''
When the bill went to the Senate floor in July 1991, two months after Mitchell had crafted the compromise legislation, Mitchell introduced a substitution that struck preemption.
Mitchell spokeswoman Diane Dewhirst, contacted after the luncheon with Mitchell, says the senator never supported preemption in the Brady bill. Furthermore, she adds, he has had a longstanding position against allowing federal legislation to preempt tougher state laws on a variety of issues.
The NRA, which counts 3 million members, is one of Washington's most powerful lobbies. A formal NRA position in favor of the Brady bill would likely have made the last days of the legislative year less harrowing. The bill looked set to die for lack of a few votes to get it through the Senate. A last-minute compromise negotiated by Mitchell and minority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas got it through.
At lunch, Mitchell also said the NRA ``would be wise'' to endorse legislation to ban 19 varieties of assault weapon. But the organization is not likely to change its negative position on that, because it does not want to set a precedent of supporting an outright ban on a weapon.
Public anxiety, however, is growing about the proliferation of weapons in this country, and the days of an NRA virtually unchallenged on Capitol Hill are over. By achieving the passage of Brady, Handgun Control Inc., with Sarah and James Brady at the lead, has now established itself as a counterforce against the NRA.