Useful Steps on Guns, Justice

The juvenile-justice bill the Senate passed last week, with its new gun-control provisions, isn't a complete answer to youth violence. But it takes several steps in the right direction.

On a tie vote, with the deciding ballot cast by Vice President Al Gore, the upper house approved an amendment to require background checks on gun-show sales. The same vote beat back attempts to nullify a requirement that people reclaiming their weapons at pawn shops undergo a similar check.

The bill also requires that gun-storage or safety devices be sold with handguns, an attempt to cut down on the number of accidents involving children. It bans the import of high-capacity ammunition clips and provides that any juvenile convicted of a felony be banned for life from owning a gun.

The gun-show provisions went farther than many Republicans and the gun lobby would like. GOP leaders tried to keep their members on the ranch with a series of narrower proposals, but in the end six Republicans - four from the industrial Midwest - joined with all but one Democrat to help pass the amendment, sponsored by Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey and Bob Kerrey (D) of Nebraska. It was gun control advocates' biggest victory since 1994.

Like the gun-control amendments, the juvenile-justice bill itself got new impetus from the Littleton, Colo., and Conyers, Ga., school shootings after two years of languishing in the Judiciary Committee. It provides $5 billion over five years for state and local law-enforcement and prevention programs; allows 14-year-olds to be tried as adults in federal courts for serious violent or drug offenses (a provision that must be applied selectively and wisely); and makes it a federal offense to recruit new street-gang members. It also sets up studies on the effects of entertainment products and gun-marketing on children and makes Internet-screening software available at lower cost.

In the end, most Republicans joined Democrats to pass the overall bill, which now moves to the House. But many complained, along with the National Rifle Association, that the federal government does little to enforce the gun-control laws already on the books. They have a point, and the Clinton administration needs to move beyond press-conference lip-service to tougher enforcement.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois promises to bring the measure up in June. Democrats, who smell victory, are pressing for a vote this week.

There's no reason to bypass the House Judiciary Committee and rush the bill to the floor. But its gun-control provisions are sensible and needed. The House should pass it promptly.

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