Clinton's legacy: gun-control president?

Plan to add gun restrictions is in keeping with his long record onfirearms limits.

The president who helped push through the Brady handgun bill and the assault-weapons ban is again standing toe to toe with the powerful gun lobby.

For Bill Clinton, gun control is a longstanding moral issue - and one he takes personally. From his days as governor of Arkansas, he and the National Rifle Association have sniped at each other, trading threats and vetoes.

As the story goes, a NRA lobbyist once confronted Mr. Clinton in the hallway of the Arkansas Capitol, delivering a "not very veiled threat" that unless the governor signed NRA-backed legislation, the group would make it difficult for him when he ran for president. Angered, Clinton responded: "You don't get it. It's a bad bill," and then vetoed it, according to former White House aide Paul Begala.

Both sides of the gun-control divide agree that Clinton has gone on to do more to restrict firearms than any modern-day president. The proposals he unveiled this week, including one to limit gun shoppers to buying one handgun per month, build on that legacy.

In the beginning ...

Clinton's gun-control push began his first year in office with the Brady bill, which had languished for seven years under Republican presidents. The law, which required a waiting period and a background check for handgun purchases, has prevented more than a quarter million felons, fugitives, stalkers, and others from buying handguns, says the White House.

The Brady waiting period has expired because background checks are now automated, but Clinton seeks to revive it as a "cooling off" time for impulse buyers who might harm themselves or others.

In 1994, the president moved on to assault weapons, vigorously advocating a controversial ban on 19 types of weapons. Since signing that legislation, he has faced down the gun lobby with executive orders, including banning imports of more than 50 models of modified assault weapons.

Now Clinton wants to tighten gun restrictions further by requiring background checks of buyers at gun shows, as well as of people buying explosives; raising the age from 18 to 21 for buying handguns; and increasing penalties for adults who transfer guns to juveniles.

The proposals rile those who want to protect the Constitution's Second Amendment, which guarantees Americans the right to bear arms. "The Clinton-Gore administration has been the most anti-law-abiding-gun-owner administration in American history," says John Michael Snyder, public-affairs director for the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms.

Clinton's explanation that the proposals are limited inconveniences for gun buyers, not the first steps in eroding the Second Amendment, do not convince Mr. Snyder. "I don't think Clinton is trustworthy," he says.

Although the gun-control proposals have been in the making for months, the White House unveiled them a week after the Littleton, Colo., school killings, hoping to catch the momentum behind the public's concerns.

In making the announcement, Clinton pulled every arrow from his rhetorical quiver, even harking back to his boyhood experience shooting cans with a .22-caliber rifle. He suggested that Americans would come to view the "hassles" of gun control as they do security checks at airports - inconvenient, but worth it. He also chided the NRA for telling voters gun restrictions mean that "pretty soon they'll come after my shotgun and I'll miss the next duck-hunting season."

Tough sell in Congress

Congress, however, is averse to more gun controls. Democrats and Republicans from rural areas argue that values, not guns, are the issue. They also note that the gun industry has become adept at finding ways around restrictions.

For the White House, the task is to persuade the congressional leadership to allow the legislation to come to the floor, says Bruce Reed, Clinton's domestic policy adviser. To that end, the president and first lady will keep "a high profile" on the issue, he says.

Polls show that Americans, while rejecting total gun control, support more gun restrictions. Meanwhile, the Littleton incident is galvanizing public opinion in favor of added controls more than past incidents have, say gun-control advocates.

"A drumbeat will build for Congress to act," says Mr. Reed. "They might not do everything, but they better do something."

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