The most important gun-control legislation in five years faces a major hurdle this week on Capitol Hill, where it risks falling victim to bitter battles between traditionally pro-gun House Republicans and their Democratic opponents.
Skirmishing in the deeply divided House portends close votes on new firearm curbs similar to those approved by the Senate last month. Congress has not passed any major gun bills since Republicans took control in 1994.
Yet failure by the House to adopt legislation approaching the modest Senate provisions could come at a high political cost - stirring public disapproval of the GOP-run chamber and fueling charges of a Republican Congress in disarray, lawmakers and lobbyists say.
"If we don't [pass something], it will create a terrible backlash for the Republican Congress, and we can't take that kind of a backlash leading up to an election year," says Rep. Marge Roukema (R) of New Jersey. "The leadership understands that - I hope," says Ms. Roukema, one of several Republican moderates who support the Senate-passed gun restrictions.
Most Americans - about two thirds - support stricter gun-control laws, numerous polls show, with the sentiment intensifying since the Littleton, Colo., high school shootings left 15 people dead in April. Women, especially, favor stronger controls. In a sign of growing grass-roots support, a bipartisan group of mayors is urging the House this week to pass major new limits on guns.
A public outcry helped shift Senate votes last month to secure passage of Democrat-sponsored measures including 72-hour gun-show background checks, mandatory child-safety locks, and a ban on high-capacity ammunition clip imports.
Seeking to seize the initiative lost by Senate Republicans, House Speaker Dennis Hastert last month quickly endorsed a House Republican package of gun controls, including mandatory gun-show background checks. Since then, however, Mr. Hastert has faced such difficulty uniting wide-apart factions around the GOP-proposed gun legislation that last week he essentially gave up, saying he would let members freely vote their consciences and leave it to the House to "work its will."
Indeed, even Hastert's top deputies, majority leader Dick Armey and majority whip Tom DeLay, both of Texas, indicated that they do not fully support the House Republican gun measures. Some Republicans left open the possibility that Mr. DeLay could press members to vote down the curbs.
Drafted in part by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, a longtime supporter of gun control, the House gun proposals are included in a juvenile-justice bill scheduled for floor action beginning Wednesday.
First, however, the powerful House Rules Committee is expected today to decide the terms of debate on gun issues, including what amendments will be in order. Democrats have pressed for an "open rule" to allow wider debate on gun-control alternatives such as that held in the Senate.
Currently, political forces in the House are divided between members who advocate stronger gun-safety laws and criminal checks, and those who argue such laws will infringe upon the rights of millions of legitimate gun owners.
Most of the 211 Democrats and as many as 40 moderate Republicans, such as Roukema and Rep. John Porter of Illinois, are likely to back gun-control measures similar or identical to those adopted by the Senate. "Our goal is to bring it up to at least the Senate standards," says Roukema.
Most of the 223 Republicans, joined by as many as 30 conservative Democrats, are generally opposed to gun control. Some are willing to support limited gun measures such as those proposed by Mr. Hyde, which include mandatory criminal background checks at gun shows but define the shows more narrowly than did the Senate bill and slightly shorten the maximum time period for conducting the check.
Still other Republicans, however, say they will fight any toughening of gun laws. They argue that lax enforcement of existing laws and broader, cultural violence - not the availability of firearms - are to blame for tragedies such as that in Littleton. "The problem is more one of failure [of the Clinton administration] to enforce the laws we have," says Rep. Bob Barr (R) of Georgia, a board member of the National Rifle Association, the largest gun-rights lobby.
House Republican Conference chairman J.C. Watts stresses that firearms are not the cause of school shootings. "It's the easy out to blame the instrument," he says, referring to guns. The real question, he says, is "why would a 16-year-old take an instrument and go into a school and do destructive things?"
Gun-control advocates worry that pro-gun Republicans trying to block new firearm curbs may end up defeating the juvenile-justice bill, possibly by attaching too many "killer amendments" related to youth crime that Democrats are likely to oppose.
"It's entirely possible that they [House Republicans] might self-destruct," says Marie Carbone, director of congressional relations for Handgun Control Inc. here. Even if the justice bill fails, however, Democrats are expected to continue to try to attach gun-control measures to other legislation. "At some point, [the House] will have to deal with this," Ms. Carbone says.