NRA and police groups split over legislation to loosen some federal gun controls

A drive to weaken federal gun controls, that sped almost effortlessly through the United States Senate last summer, has hit potholes in the House of Representatives. Although opposition from Democratic leaders had been expected, resistance has come from a new quarter -- police groups.

After years of allying themselves with the National Rifle Association, major law enforcement organizations have sharply broken with the NRA on the newest round of gun legislation.

``There're so many guns out there now,'' says Richard A. Boyd, a retired Oklahoma City policeman who is president of the 170,000-member Fraternal Order of Police, the biggest such group in the country. He says his group objects to parts of the latest NRA-backed bill, which attempt to change some of the record-keeping regulations for gun dealers.

A ``conservative'' estimate of the number of handguns nationwide is 50 million, and gunfire kills -- on the average -- 100 policemen each year, Mr. Boyd says.

The Senate took the police groups by surprise when, without hearings, it passed 79 to 15 a bill sponsored by Sen. James A. McClure (R) of Idaho. The bill would weaken several provisions of the Gun Control Act of 1968, This act requires many collectors to license their guns, and bans interstate sales of rifles, shotguns, and handguns.

``We knew we had to get in gear,'' says Boyd. Since the vote in July, he and fellow police-group members have been walking the halls of Congress, sending mailings, and appearing on broadcast shows to try to slow the bill in the House.

Rep. Bill Hughes, chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee on gun legislation, says the lobbying effort has had an effect. ``For the first time it puts members in a position of either siding with the police or the NRA,'' says the New Jersey Democrat.

Representative Hughes wants ``consensus'' legislation that bans sales of machine guns and sets a 15-day waiting period for handgun purchases -- but loosens restrictions on hunters.

John Aquilino, director of public education for the NRA, says his group is still optimistic that supporters will bring the Senate bill to the House floor. Rep. Harold L. Volkmer (D) of Missouri, House sponsor of the McClure bill, has filed a ``discharge'' petition, requiring immediate action on the bill if he can obtain 218 signatures from House members. He has reportedly gained about 95 signatures after one week.

``We're seeing an incredible amount of disinformation and misinformation'' about the bill, says Mr. Aquilino.

The NRA charges Hughes with delaying legislation. Hughes denies these charges but concedes that the discharge petition has put pressure on him. ``It's made me reorder the priorities of my committee,'' he says. It has also forced him to sponsor hearings and speed up action on his gun bill, which he expects to complete early next year.

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