Gun-Control Laws Scrutinized After Empire State Shooting

Proposed new rules would stop foreign tourists from buying guns

The shootings on the Empire State Building have galvanized the gun-control movement.

In the wake of Sunday's gunfire, which killed one person, anti-gun legislators are asking for new federal rules to close some loopholes that allowed a Palestinian tourist to buy a gun in Florida and shoot seven people in New York. Some of the proposals would require a national handgun identification card similar to a driver's license and would ban foreign tourists and visitors from buying guns in the US.

Gun-control advocates are also asking the White House to take action to toughen the residency requirements for obtaining a gun. Dennis Henigan, general counsel for Handgun Control, Inc., says President Clinton, under current law, could require a handgun buyer to show a utility bill or some other evidence of residency. "In many states, it's too easy to get a driver's license or ID card," says Mr. Henigan.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) says it is opposed to any new gun-control legislation. "This tragedy on the Empire State Building is a reason to examine why gun controls failed," says Tom Wyld, a spokesman for the NRA in Fairfax, Va. Mr. Wyld says the NRA is not opposed to proof-of-residency requirements. But, he adds, "Would a utility bill have prevented the crime, or just postponed it?"

On Tuesday, the Justice Department said the so-called Brady bill, which requires background checks before anyone can buy a handgun, had prevented 186,000 illegal over-the-counter sales of guns during the past 28 months. About 70 percent of those who could not buy a gun were convicted felons. But the Justice Department analysis does not say whether the rejectees obtained guns on the black market.

In the latest shooting, a Palestinian English teacher, Ali Abu Kamal, flew to Melbourne, Fla., where he was able to obtain a Florida ID card. With the card and using his motel as his residence, he obtained a .38 Beretta semi-automatic pistol. On Sunday afternoon in New York, he opened fire on a group of tourists on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building. He then killed himself. Mr. Kamal carried a letter announcing his "restless aspiration" to murder a list of enemies he associated with Israel and Zionism.

New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R) called the Florida laws "insane," because they allowed Kamal to obtain a gun after only three days in the state. On Monday, Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles (D) pointed out that his state's computer checks had denied guns to 40,000 felons, and he said he didn't think Florida had a "cavalier" attitude toward guns.

This is not the first time New York has criticized other state laws. For years, most of the weapons that arrived in New York came from Virginia. Last year, however, Virginia passed a law limiting gun buyers to one gun a month.

"Virginia dropped off the Top Five list," says Rep. Charles Schumer (D) of New York. He says the top states supplying handguns to New York are Florida, Ohio, Georgia, Texas, and South Carolina.

On Tuesday, Representative Schumer introduced a bill requiring a national gun-buying card, similar to a driver's license. The qualifications for getting the card would include proof of residency, fingerprinting, and a firearms safety course.

Also on Tuesday, Rep. Nita Lowey (D) of New York announced she would co-sponsor legislation that would ban the sale of guns to foreign tourists and visitors. The NRA says there may be "constitutional" reasons to oppose this legislation.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California has said she will introduce legislation requiring that guns meet certain safety requirements. And last week, the White House announced two gun proposals: an extension of the Brady bill, requiring a trigger-safety device to prevent a youngster from accidentally setting off a gun; and an additional $6 million in funding for the National Tracing Center, which tracks where guns used in crimes originate.

Schumer says he believes Congress is more amenable to changes in the gun laws. "Do we think this is a lay-up?" he asks? "No, but it's easier than the assault-weapons ban," he replies.

Congressional staff members, however, have their doubts any such legislation can be moved through Congress. "The gatekeepers are the same," says one staffer.

The NRA shares these doubts, too. Wyld says the NRA was successful in helping pro-gun candidates get elected last fall.

Schumer says the congressional freshmen - who often set the pace - are more amenable to gun control. And, he adds, after 20 years in Congress, "you can tell the temperature."

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