Rethinking gun laws - once again

Lawmakers in several states delay bills; Clinton asks for tighter

As the community of Littleton, Colo., endures a long week of mourning, it is becoming clear that the latest in a too-long string of school shootings may have a profound effect on the way the nation views guns.

For whatever reason - the number of victims, the firepower of the assailants, a sense that enough is finally enough - the Columbine High tragedy has already affected gun ownership legislation in a way that previous such shootings did not.

While it is unclear if this trend will amount to anything more than a temporary setback to the National Rifle Association's long effort to relax gun laws nationwide, public sentiment in some areas is ahead of gun-control advocates. They're scrambling to back antigun efforts that just a week ago seemed doomed.

"We weren't ready," says Colorado Senate minority leader Mike Feeley (D). "We were playing defense and all of a sudden people are saying, enough." Senator Feeley himself lives just miles from Columbine High School. At minimum, he predicts, the tragedy there will put efforts to ease gun restrictions on hold.

"For now we need to do no more harm, no more relaxation of gun laws," he says.

The Colorado Legislature itself has already made a 180-degree turnabout. Two bills to loosen gun ownership laws were pulled by sponsors within a day after Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris attacked their school carrying at least two shotguns, a semiautomatic assault pistol, and a handgun.

Sponsors of the Colorado effort to pass a so-called conceal-carry bill, which would allow gun owners greater freedom to carry hidden handguns, may now wait until 2001 to bring the legislation back up.

Alabama and Michigan similarly delayed gun bills due to the killings. The California Legislature voted to limit handgun purchases to one per person per month shortly after the Columbine tragedy. And in Washington, President Clinton has unveiled his answer: legislation that would crack down on gun shows and illegal gun trafficking, while banning gun ownership for people who committed violent crimes as juveniles.

National debate - again

In the week after the devastation, both state and federal policymakers are closely watching the tone of the national dialogue, as the country debates the link between guns and violence. Added emphasis on restricting juveniles' access to guns could be one result.

While few suggest the same degree of outrage is present that led to a ban on mail-order firearms in the wake of Robert Kennedy's assassination in 1968, the nation is taking a second look.

"The country is very receptive to it [additional restrictions] right now," says Robert Spitzer, author of "The Politics of Gun Control," at the State University of New York in Cortland. "Nobody is arguing that if we had tougher laws, last week wouldn't have happened. But we can ask, 'Is the government doing all it can do?' "

Mr. Clinton's proposals outlined April 27 would institute criminal background checks on people attempting to buy dynamite. It would make locking devices mandatory on all guns sold, institute a lifetime gun-ownership ban on violent juvenile offenders, and create criminal liability for adults who provide access to guns.

The president is also seeking up to 10 years in prison for adults who knowingly transfer weapons to juveniles.

The package would create a three-day waiting period for handgun purchases that would work in tandem with the now-active national instant check system. And in a measure sure to draw fire from the NRA, all gun-show sales would be subject to background checks on buyers.

Congress is also seeking to have its say in the debate. A spate of proposals is expected from Democratic lawmakers by week's end, seeking to institute government regulatory powers over the gun industry.

Legislation that would impose such regulation, sponsored by Sen. Robert Torricelli (D) of New Jersey and Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D) of Rhode Island, is receiving support from gun-control forces.

"Until we get some control over the gun industry, we have no hope of getting guns out of the hands of kids," says Kristen Rand at the Violence Policy Center in Washington.

But for all the momentum generated by last week's shootings, advocates admit it is tempered by political realities and a wider desire to hone in on all the causal effects believed responsible for juvenile violence including the Internet, the media, and parenting, and not just firearms.

Layering of laws

Even Democratic lawmakers, including Senate minority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota, believe the focus should be more diffuse. A layering of more laws, critics say, will not improve the safety of students nationwide.

"We estimate four or five laws were broken just getting into the building," says Colorado Gov. Bill Owens (R).

"Somebody doesn't decide to walk into a school and murder several people because of lack of a gun lock or something," says Andrew Molchan, director of the National Association of Federally Licensed Gun Dealers. "It's a horrible, profound moral issue."

So far, the NRA has been largely silent. Officials say they plan on addressing the tragedy at the meeting May 1 and are reluctant to gauge public sentiment. "It's inappropriate for us to engage in a political debate at this moment,'' NRA spokesman Jim Manown told reporters.

In several countries, shooting tragedies spurred crackdowns on gun access.

For instance, after the 1996 Dunblane, Scotland, incident in which a teacher and 16 children were killed, a national debate on gun control arose and resulted in a ban on handguns in Britain. Assault weapons were banned in Australia in 1996 after a Tasmanian man armed with an automatic rifle killed 35 people.

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