Tale of two lawmakers' shift on gun control

Shootings back home spur two gun-rights backers to switch votes,

Sen. Gordon Smith (R) of Oregon is a staunch defender of the Second Amendment right to bear arms and has accepted thousands of dollars in gun-lobby contributions. Likewise, Senate Democrat Max Cleland represents a conservative Georgia district that opposes new gun restrictions.

But both took the unexpected step last week of embracing more aggressive measures to curb firearms, helping gun-control advocates clinch their most important legislative victory in five years.

The senators were galvanized to act by a disturbingly similar experience: witnessing the aftermath of high-school shootings in their home states.

"It is horrifying to see a cafeteria full of students with gunshot wounds," says Senator Smith, recalling a visit to Thurston High School in Springfield, Ore., last year, after a shooting in which two students died. "To ... hear the cries of their parents that we do something made me determined not to look away."

Senator Cleland reversed course on a Senate gun-control amendment last Thursday, only hours after learning six students were shot at Heritage High School in Conyers, Ga., a few miles from where he grew up. "You don't know how real it is until it happens in your own backyard," Cleland told the Monitor.

Smith and Cleland offer perhaps the most striking evidence of what may be a turning point on gun control in the GOP-led Congress. They show that even a Congress heavily backed by the gun lobby cannot ignore the public anguish over an 18-month string of student shootings.

Moreover, the shift in congressional sentiment apparently runs deep. "This is not a passing fad," says Cleland. "This is touching on the lives of millions of people who are wondering whether their school and their kids will be next."

The gun-control provisions the Senate passed last week as part of a broader juvenile-justice bill were by no means sweeping. They fell short of a package of proposals, including a one-per-month limit on handgun purchases, offered by President Clinton after last month's shooting at a Littleton, Colo., high school.

Still, the amendments - which mandate background checks for gun-show sales, require child safety locks with handgun sales, and ban the import of ammunition clips holding more than 10 rounds - mark new steps for the Senate. The safety-lock amendment, for example, passed 78 to 20; a similar proposal last year failed after winning only 39 votes.

The trend is likely to continue in the House, despite its reputation for supporting gun rights. The last major House vote on gun control was in 1996, when lawmakers passed a bill repealing the 1994 ban on certain assault weapons. The bill later died in the Senate.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, previously an opponent of major gun control, indicated last week he supports mandatory background checks for all gun-show sales and raising the age for handgun purchases from 18 to 21.

A key figure in the House debate, House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, voiced optimism that the House will pass a bill with gun-control measures by mid-June that "the president will sign."

"This is on a fast track," said Mr. Hyde, whose committee will hold hearings on gun-control issues this week. Yet he could face resistance on the ideologically polarized Judiciary Committee from gun-rights backers like Rep. Bob Barr (R) of Georgia, a board member of the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Congressional Republicans such as Mr. Barr argue that what is needed is not more laws, but better enforcement. Some Democrats concede that more aggressive prosecution is needed.

Yet last week's votes mark a setback for the NRA and other gun-rights groups, which spent $1.8 million on federal campaign contributions from 1997 to 1998, 83 percent of which went to Republicans.

A minor Republican revolt erupted in the Senate on Wednesday night after GOP members passed - without seeing the fine print - a pro-industry amendment offered by Sen. Larry Craig (R) of Idaho, another NRA board member, that would have made gun-show background checks voluntary and watered down existing gun laws.

Smith drove back to his Bethesda, Md., home, switched on the news, and learned to his "horror" what the Craig measure meant. "I was angry," he said. In the Senate the next day, he told GOP leaders that if they didn't replace the Craig provision with something stronger, he would try to change his vote.

Other GOP senators shared Smith's reservations, and what unfolded were concessions by the Republican leadership. Ultimately, six GOP members broke ranks to help pass a much tougher amendment on gun shows.

Smith, Cleland, and other lawmakers have been flooded with hostile calls from pro-gun forces in recent days, but remain confident in their votes. Cleland, who lost both legs and an arm as a young soldier in Vietnam, has a distinct respect for the lethal weapons he carried day and night for a year.

On Thursday after the shootings, as he rolled his wheelchair down the Senate aisle, he felt absolutely certain he had to change his vote and not let "Congress sit by." That emotional moment was "the Senate getting in touch with ... the American body politic," he said.

"It's not on TV anymore, you know," he said, thinking back to growing up in the 1950s down the road from Conyers. "It's people you grew up with and the town where you played ball."

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