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A Quick Draw on the Gun Control Debate

May 14, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: This week’s Senate battles over gun control. Kwame Holman reports.

SPOKESMAN: I object! I object!

SPOKESMAN: Objection is heard.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: You object to doing what’s right, here?

KWAME HOLMAN: Members of Congress tend to behave unpredictably when the debate is about gun control. Passions stir, and tempers can flare. And more so this week, in wake of the school shootings in Colorado.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER, (D) New York: Why are we taking a step backwards less than a month after Littleton?

KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate was scheduled to spend this week debating new legislation aimed at getting tougher on juveniles who commit crimes. However, in light of the school shootings, most of the debate focused on guns, and restricting teenagers’ access to them.

SEN. BARBARA BOXER, (D) California: This is a picture directly from the Internet in the Beretta Catalogue. They call it their “youth collection.” And we can see the bold colors in the gun. What they say in the advertising– and I think this is very important– from their youth collection, “an exciting bold designer look that is sure to make you stand out in a crowd.”

KWAME HOLMAN: Yesterday, the Senate overwhelmingly approved a proposal by Missouri Republican John Ashcroft to ban possession of semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips by juveniles.

SEN. JOHN ASHCROFT: My amendment simply treats semiautomatic assault weapons such as the AK-47′s and the Uzi’s, street-sweeper shotguns and high capacity ammunition feeding devices the same way for juveniles that we treat handguns. Private parties can no longer sell them to juveniles, and a juvenile needs parental permission to possess one.

KWAME HOLMAN: California Democrat Diane Feinstein also attracted broad support for her amendment, which would ban the importation of high-capacity clips for assault weapons, outlawed by Congress in 1994.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, (D) California: They have no sporting purpose. Anybody sees anybody deer hunting with one of these, root for the deer, because you don’t have much of a hunter if it takes 30 bullets in an assault weapon to take down a deer.

KWAME HOLMAN: But for several days, there was contentious debate, confusion, and a sudden reversal by the Senate involving gun shows. On Wednesday, New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg urged the Senate to require background checks on all gun purchasers at gun shows.

SEN. FRANK LAUTENBERG, (D) New Jersey: The key provision would require that all gun sales go through a federally licensed firearms dealer, so if the person who is unlicensed wants to sell a gun to somebody over here, he then has to include a federally licensed firearms dealer in the process. The federally licensed arms dealer then would be responsible for conducting a Brady check on the purchaser.

KWAME HOLMAN: But the Senate narrowly rejected the mandatory background checks on gun buyers, and, instead, adopted a system of voluntary checks. It was proposed by Idaho Republican Larry Craig, who argued gun shows rarely attract criminals.

SEN. LARRY CRAIG, (R) Idaho: Even the Justice Department says that guns sold at gun shows less than 2 percent find themselves in illegal activities. That’s this Justice Department. That’s Bill Clinton’s Justice Department. And yet Bill Clinton, our President, would try to characterize gun shows as being a bazaar for criminal activities. He’s wrong, and he knows it.

KWAME HOLMAN: However, immediately after the vote, a few Republican colleagues began to rethink their support for the voluntary background checks. And by Thursday morning, President Clinton was out urging the Senate to reconsider its decision.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: There is simply no excuse for letting criminals get arms at gun shows they can’t get at gun stores. Today the Senate will have another chance to debate common sense measures that most gun makers and sports men and ordinary citizens would welcome. The American people are watching this debate. They care very much about the results.

KWAME HOLMAN: By yesterday afternoon, Senator Craig was back on the Senate floor to say there were errors in the language of his original proposal, and to offer a revised one. While not identical to Senator Lautenberg’s, the new Craig amendment called for similar mandatory background checks at gun shows, using Justice Department records.

SEN. LARRY CRAIG: An instant computerized check system that assures that felons are on it, and adjudicated others are on it, that find themselves defined by the law is being not responsible for the ownership of guns. That’s what it’s all about, and that’s what we’re about here today — that in the area of gun shows, that this be done.

KWAME HOLMAN: Democrat Lautenberg charged Craig and his supporters were shamed into revising the amendment.

SEN. FRANK LAUTENBERG: We hear it couched in flowery phrases. Oh, I didn’t know there was that exception. Or “I didn’t know that there was this exception.” But when they heard from their constituents and the constituents were angry and mortified by the fact that their representative voted to keep open the loophole. And so now we’re trying to figure out what it is exactly that’s being proposed. And if we’re cynical and we’re suspicious, we should be.

KWAME HOLMAN: Lautenberg and other Democrats charged Craig’s new proposal was riddled with loopholes. And this morning, the third day of debating the issue, the frustrations started to show.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: Anyone who thinks that we close the gun show loophole with this amendment is mistaken, because special licensees neither have to make a background check nor file any reports.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: I’ve insisted on making these changes so that we can get rid of these phony arguments that have been made on the other side, and I’m sick of it. And what we’re trying to do this morning is make it absolutely clear, even though we think it’s clear in the bill as it is, with this modification. Under current law, just so we can all understand it — I hate to say this but I really believe there’s an effort by some in this body to never have a juvenile justice bill.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate went ahead and voted on Senator Craig’s revised amendment requiring background checks for those at gun shows. All but one Democrat, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, voted against it but that one vote was enough to ensure the passage. However Majority Leader Trent Lott came to the floor and raised doubt that any amendments to the juvenile justice bill will become law anytime soon.

SEN. TRENT LOTT: This is a pathetic accomplishment. There are only 100 Senators and we have about 75 amendments left – 75 amendments. Lets — please let’s get serious. I mean, every Senator doesn’t have to offer an amendment.

KWAME HOLMAN: Lott warned that if Senators don’t limit their amendments, he might have to pull the entire bill next week and turn to other legislation.