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The Senate Gun Control Fight

BY Admin  May 20, 1999 at 1:15 PM EDT

It took the vote of Vice President Gore to break the 50-50 Senate deadlock over the Democratic amendment to the juvenile crime bill. The provision, sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), closes the “loophole” for weapons purchased at gun shows and pawn shops.

The proposal requires mandatory background checks for all transactions at gun shows and a mandatory background check for anyone seeking to claim his or her own weapon at a pawn shop.

“The goal very simply is to satisfy the American people,” Lautenberg said of his proposal. “It’s their belief that anybody who buys a gun ought not to be anonymous in that purchase.”

In addition, the Senate vote wiped out an amendment sponsored by Gordon Smith (R-OR). His proposal, derisively called “Gun Control Light” by Democrats, garnered 79 votes on the floor. It would have limited the time for instant checks to 24 hours, instead of the current three days, one of several changes that Democrats said marked a retreat in the GOP’s gun control position.

The Lautenberg amendment, with stricter enforcement and a longer time to check backgrounds, was considered more controversial. After realizing the vote would be close, Vice President Gore announced he would travel to Capitol Hill to be available if there were a tie. It was only the fourth time he had cast the deciding vote during his six years as vice president.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) indicated he also supported changing the law.

“I think there needs to be uniformity in what they do at gun shows and what they do in a retail business,” Hastert told the AP.

Earlier in the week, the Senate overwhelmingly voted to require safety locks or secure containers be sold with every handgun. The 78 to 20 vote to support gun locks included all 44 Democrats joined by 34 Republicans. A similar proposal only mustered 39 votes last year.

Senators said that the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, and now in Georgia, has impact this week’s debate and votes.

“I think the horror that came about because of what happened in Littleton has had its effect,” said Sen. John Chafee (R-RI), cosponsor of the safety lock proposal with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Sen. Herb Kohl (D-WI).

Gun control advocates said the Senate vote may mark a fundamental shift in the debate.

“Littleton was the last straw. Democracy works,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) said. “The public mood has changed.”

Analysts said that the school shooting in Colorado, coupled with today’s incident in Georgia, has ratcheted up the pressure on lawmakers.

“There’s a history in the American gun control debate that sort of acute episodes of violence produce major legislative shifts. The gun control acts of 1968, and there were two of them, were in essence really the kind of memorials to the Martin Luther King and then Robert F. Kennedy assassinations,” Franklin Zimring, director of the Earl Warren Legal Institute and author of American Youth Violence, said on the NewsHour. “And Littleton seems to have captured public attention and created, I think, a different set of appreciated political risks for the politics of gun control at the national level.”

The Senate consideration of the legislation has been slowed by some 75 proposed amendments, but legislative leaders said they hoped a final vote on the total bill would come later in the day.