Littleton sets Washington agenda

High-school shooting will have a lasting effect on public attitudes

In the Balkans, NATO troops are settling into a peacekeeping role that could last a generation. In Iowa and New Hampshire, front-runners have leapt from the gate in what could be the closest presidential race in years.

But in Washington, lawmakers are consumed with another subject: how to keep the youths of America from becoming killers.

In the wake of the Columbine High shootings, the mix of guns, kids, and culture has become the capital's Topic A. The debate revived a juvenile-justice bill and has made it a forum for proposals and emotions that have surprised leaders of both parties.

Members are simply reflecting voter interest. Many citizens may not think so, but members of Congress are typically desperate to do what their constitutents want, and indications are that the Littleton, Colo., tragedy will have a profound and lasting effect on a wide range of national attitudes.

In polls now, "the issues most important to Americans all have a Littleton stamp on them," says Andy Kohut, Pew Research Center director.

Asked to name the most important problems in the nation, respondents to a just-released Pew survey most often chose crime-related topics (11 percent), morality and family values (11 percent), and education (7 percent).

Pew polls have found that interest in the Columbine High tragedy has not peaked and declined. Respondents rank it as the third most important story of the decade, behind only the Gulf War and the Rodney King beating and trial.

"Neither traditional pocketbook matters nor international issues are in the forefront of American minds," concludes a Pew paper.

Youth violence is not a new topic of Washington debate.

As far back as the early 1950s, rising national concern about post-war juvenile delinquency led to two years of hearings and legislation on the subject.

The concerns of lawmakers and parents of the time reveal an almost heart-breaking deterioration of social conditions. The focus was not on preventing school shootings, but on curbing a soaring rate of stolen-auto joy riding. When decrying the negative effects of popular culture, members of Congress talked about comic books, not violent video games.

In April 1954, a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on juvenile delinquency held two days of hearings on the effect of crime, horror, and supernatural comic books on young readers. Senators complained about things such as one comic's depiction of a human head boiling in a vat.

While the hearings concluded that delinquency had a wide range of causes, they led to a voluntary code of conduct by publishers that banned use of the words "horror" and "terror" on covers.

Culture is similarly a part of today's debate. Last week, the Republican House leadership split its version of juvenile-justice legislation into two bills for the purposes of this week's debate - one that focused on cultural issues and crime penalties, and a second that dealt mainly with gun-control measures.

The first bill gave many in the House GOP a forum to conduct a sometimes-bitter and pointed debate about the national context of the Columbine shootings. Quoting from a letter to a radio show, House majority whip Tom DeLay (R) of Texas sounded at times like a preacher, citing broken homes, television, and even the teaching of evolution as reasons why kids go wrong.

The House voted down an amendment by Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois that would have banned the provision of violent videos, computer games, and other material to minors. Even many Republicans sympathetic to Mr. Hyde's intent felt the effort was too broad and would have run afoul of First Amendment protections.

State efforts to enact similar limits in Tennessee and New York have been struck down by the courts.

"I can't believe anyone thinks this is remotely constitutional," says Jamin Raskin, a constitutional law expert at American University here.

But that such a sweeping change in national behavior would even be considered on the House floor surprised many in Washington and reflected the unpredictable power of the issue.

Indeed, voters see no single cause of the Columbine tragedy, noted pollster Kohut. The image of the entertainment industry has suffered in recent months, as well as that of the gun lobby. In a recent poll, "video-game manufacturers got a lower rating than the NRA [National Rifle Association]," says Kohut. "We were shocked."

But it is guns, and possible new restrictions on their availability to youths, that have been the centerpiece of Washington's free-floating post-Columbine argument.

As of this writing, final votes on the gun aspect of the juvenile-justice bill had yet to take place. House members were to consider a range of options for more closely controlling sales at gun shows, in particular.

The differences in the proposals loomed large to some. Gun-control advocates, for instance, decried a move to limit to 24 hours the time law officers have to conduct background checks after gun-show sales.

But only a few months ago, any effort to put curbs on guns shows appeared unlikely to succeed. The Littleton shootings have made GOP women, in particular, more likely to see gun control as a child-safety issue, and thus to favor incrementally toughening gun access in the US.

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