TOPICS > Politics

The House Gun Control Debate

June 18, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Kwame Holman has the gun control story.

SPOKESMAN: The Committee will be in order.

KWAME HOLMAN: The rhetoric in the House during three days of debate on juvenile violence and guns was passionate and often accusatory; the membership, tired and testy.

SPOKESPERSON: Thank you. I ask unanimous consent to revise and extend my remarks because I simply cannot understand –

SPOKESMAN: Without objection.

SPOKESPERSON: I don’t understand how a House of people — who were willing to wait four days for dry cleaning can’t wait for a gun.

KWAME HOLMAN: Late last night and early this morning, the House took its long-anticipated action on requiring background checks at gun shows to prevent juveniles and criminals from getting access to guns.

REP. ROD BLAGOJEVICH, (D) Illinois: In fact, 54,000 guns were confiscated last year in crimes that came from gun shows, in the 5,200 gun shows that we had across the country.

KWAME HOLMAN: Under current law, federally licensed dealers at gun shows are required to conduct background checks on customers that can take up to three days if necessary. But private dealers at gun shows are exempt from having to conduct background checks. New York Democrat Carolyn McCarthy called that a loophole, and as the Senate did last month, she moved to close it. Six years ago, McCarthy’s husband was killed and her son critically injured by a gunman on the Long Island railroad. She was elected to Congress three years ago after campaigning on a strong gun control platform. Last night, McCarthy held the attention of the House as she pushed her amendment to require all gun show dealers to take up to three days to conduct background checks. And her definition of a gun show was any event in which 50 guns or more were on display.

REP. CAROLYN MCCARTHY: Dear colleagues, this is an amendment that is common sense. It is common sense for the American people. I ask to you listen to the speakers and hopefully be open minded when you vote.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Michigan Democrat John Dingell argued that gun show dealers and patrons were being characterized unfairly.

REP. JOHN DINGELL: Now, gun shows are not saturnalias of criminals who are bent on destroying the lives and the well-being of innocent citizens. They are a group of innocent citizens who are doing something that goes back as far as Plymouth Rock. They are getting together to sell, trade and to engage in commerce.

KWAME HOLMAN: Dingell, the most senior member in the House, also proposed requiring all dealers to conduct background checks, but limiting the time for that process to a maximum of 24 hours, less than what current law requires. And at least ten dealers would have to be on hand for at a gun-selling event for it to be considered a gun show at all.

REP. JOHN DINGELL: To go beyond this is simply to harass innocent, law-abiding citizens and to hurt people who love to go to gun shows to see their fellow citizens, to talk about guns, to look at firearms, to perhaps purchase a firearm, or more likely to purchase some other kind of sporting accoutrement.

KWAME HOLMAN: Most Democrats argued against the Dingell amendment and for McCarthy.

REP. ROBERT ANDREWS: An angry, paranoid schizophrenic goes to a gun show at 10:00 on a Saturday morning, attempts to buy a gun. The police discover on Monday morning that he has a criminal background record of beating his wife and a long criminal rap sheet. Under the Dingell amendment, he gets to buy the gun. Under the McCarthy amendment, he does not.

KWAME HOLMAN: A solid group of northeast republicans argued the same way. New Jersey’s Marge Roukema joined McCarthy as a co-sponsor.

REP. MARGE ROUKEMA: The checks occurring on a Saturday under the Dingell rule would mean that more than 60 percent of current denials would not have been made. That means literally a convicted rapist, child molester or any other felon could have gotten the gun.

KWAME HOLMAN: Some Republicans wanted no change in the law, but given the choice, most chose Dingell over McCarthy.

REP. BOB BARR: That date of three working days, which can balloon on a holiday weekend, which is very popular for gun shows, into six days was not chosen at random. Three days was chosen because would it put gun shows out of business. Yet it appears to be benign.

KWAME HOLMAN: And the majority of Republicans were joined by a sizable group of Democrats, mostly from the South and rural Midwest.

REP. BOB CLEMENT: Maybe the Dingell amendment won’t have made any sense years ago. But we now have a national instant background check that we didn’t have before. Therefore, we’re in a position to check on the guns that are sold within a 24-hour period.

KWAME HOLMAN: It was Democrat Bart Stupak, who represents a large number of hunters in Northern Michigan and is a member of the National Rifle Association, who provided one of the most dramatic moments of the debate.

REP. BART STUPAK: I will vote to make sure that all prospective gun purchasers must follow the same instant check system — no exceptions, no excuses, no special treatment. With so many gun owners and hunters in my district, the last vote and this vote are very tough votes for me politically. But I say to my colleagues, this is the right vote. I urge you to do the right thing. Vote for the McCarthy amendment. (Applause)

KWAME HOLMAN: There were several tense minutes as the votes were tabulated, first on the Dingell amendment. Those members actively involved in the debate voted immediately, and then waited anxiously for their colleagues to make their way from their individual offices across the street from the Capitol to the House floor. In the end, 47 Republicans voted against the Dingell amendment. But 45 Democrats voted for it. And it passed narrowly.

SPOKESMAN: On this vote the yeas are 41 — 214.

KWAME HOLMAN: Still to come was the vote on the McCarthy amendment, and the New York Congresswoman made one final pitch.

REP. CAROLYN McCARTHY: Three business days, an inconvenience to some people. It is not infringing on constitutional rights. It is not taking away anyone’s right to own a gun. I do not think that is difficult for us to do. And if we don’t do it, shame on us, because I have to tell you, the American people will remember. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

KWAME HOLMAN: McCarthy got a standing ovation for her effort. But moments later, her amendment was defeated, with 49 Democrats voting with most Republicans against the stricter gun show regulations. When the House reconvened at 9 this morning, members approved a flurry of amendments, including a prohibition on possession of assault weapons by those under 18 and a requirement a safety lock be sold with every handgun. All the approved amendments were wrapped into a single bill, which mirrored the Senate’s gun legislation except for the gun show provisions.

REP. BILL McCOLLUM: It may not be again what everybody wants, but it’s a constructive proposal that does advance the purposes intended.

KWAME HOLMAN: But during the final vote this afternoon, it was clear the resulting bill went too far for some and not far enough for others. Nearly all Democrats voted against it, largely because of the looser gun show provisions. And 82 Republicans were happy to join them believing the bill contained too many restrictions on guns. A clear indication of the dilemma was the fact that representatives McCarthy and Dingell helped vote down the overall bill.