Gun Background Checks Fall Short, Debate Resumes

ByElizabeth Wilner

W A S H I N G T O N, April 19, 2001 -- After an election cycle in which the two major-party presidential candidates took pains to avoid the subject of guns, a new interest group and two of the Senate's highest-profile members are not only seeking to revive political debate over the issue but turn the spotlight onto one relatively narrow aspect of it.

As the anniversary of the Columbine school shooting dawns, a study conducted by Americans for Gun Safety shows that Coloradans failed to achieve a bulletproof solution when they passed a ballot measure last fall requiring background checks at gun shows within their state. The study argues Colorado remains vulnerable to crimes committed with guns bought at gun shows — just at gun shows in other states which do not require background checks.

Eighteen states have passed laws requiring all private sellers to perform background checks, or at least require gun licenses, at all gun shows. But according to the report, these 18 states nevertheless become infiltrated with guns bought at shows in the 32 other states that have not passed such laws.

New Limits Possible

Not coincidentally, the study sets the stage for an anticipated Senate "compromise" proposal seeking to make background checks at all gun shows a matter of federal law. The plan would impose a waiting period of three business days, just like the Brady law — but only for three years, after which states can qualify to shorten the waiting period to 24 hours.

The proposal is expected to be rolled out within the next few weeks by Republican John McCain and Democrat Joseph Lieberman.

As Washington knows by now, behind every "third way" are a couple of centrist lawmakers, a wealthy businessman, and a lot of political ambition.

Started last July by billionaire founder Andrew J. McKelvey, Americans for Gun Safety bills itself as "centrist" and "non-partisan" — centrist, in that they claim not to oppose an individual's right to own a gun, but "urge shared responsibility for the safe use, storage and distribution of guns by all parties," according to their Web site.

McKelvey is a former member of the board of gun-control advocacy group Handgun Control Inc. His group's sole goal right now is to achieve national closure of the gun show loophole, either state by state, though even its own study suggests that process is not failsafe, or preferably through federal legislation.

The study's author, Jim Kessler, noted that if the loophole were to be closed at the federal level, "We will happily move along" to advocating other aspects of gun safety.

McCain and Lieberman did not work with Americans for Gun Safety on its report, but McCain has an ongoing relationship with the group, having appeared in TV ads they ran in Colorado and Oregon last October in support of ballot measures to close the gun show loophole in those states. Both measures passed, though gun-rights advocates dismiss the group's impact, suggesting that at least the Colorado measure would have passed in any case.

Americans for Gun Safety spokesperson Matt Bennett noted the troublesome poll standings for the measure in Oregon and countered, "In Oregon it is almost certain that the initiative would have failed if we had not gotten involved."

In an unusually open display of coordination, sources also say the two senators will appear in a TV ad promoting their bill, paid for by Americans for Gun Safety, once the legislation is introduced. The ad will run in "select markets" for an undisclosed sum; the group claims to have spent $3 million on its advertising and other efforts in Colorado and Oregon last year.

Staffers at Americans for Gun Safety and for the two senators call the legislation a middle-of-the-road approach that would provide Democratic lawmakers who must answer to gun-owning constituents and Republican lawmakers with influential numbers of suburban constituents the chance to vote in favor of some degree of federal gun control.

Supporters of the effort liken it to the partial-birth abortion ban, arguing that just as most Americans favor a ban on partial birth-abortions, including many who call themselves pro-choice, so do most favor closing the gun show loophole, including many gun owners. ABCNEWS polling has found that 92 percent of Americans — from gun-owning and non-gun-owning households alike — support a law requiring background checks for buyers at gun shows.

In the process, the Republican Party's most famous maverick and one of the Democratic Party's leading centrists will continue to round out their national reputations, helped by Americans for Gun Safety's practically unlimited budget — just in case one or both senators have designs on the presidency in 2004.

Burden of Proof

Clearly, the intention is to appeal to the public directly and through an intrigued media, placing the burden of proof on the gun-rights and gun-control groups, both of which view the forthcoming legislation as potentially detrimental to their causes. Pro-gun groups like the National Rifle Association call the bill a repackaged attempt to restrict the rights of gun owners — particularly since the proposal still would basically apply the Brady law to gun shows for three years or more. Some gun-control groups oppose it on the grounds that it would "weaken existing law," said Joe Sudbay of the Violence Policy Center. Efforts like Americans for Gun Safety or the McCain/Lieberman bill, he said, "show a fundamental misunderstanding of the politics of the gun issue."

Even so, these interest groups may have to work cut out for them. Jim Jordan, who worked to get Democrats elected to the Senate in 2000 and will again in 2002, suggested, "Anything that gets the Democrats' toe back in the water on guns is good for the party." Jordan and other party strategists believe that Democrats lost suburban women voters last cycle because the party did not push hard enough for gun control.

During the 2000 general election campaign, both then-GOP nominee Bush and Democratic nominee Al Gore glossed over their records on guns in appealing to swing voters. When traveling through politically key states like Michigan and Pennsylvania (both of which he later won), Gore kept quiet about his May 1999 tie-breaking vote on the three-business-day waiting period for fear of alienating gun-owning blue-collar and rural Democratic voters, many of whom were being pressured by the National Rifle Association to vote Republican.

When Gore and other Democratic candidates in these states had to address the subject, they often took care to declare themselves in favor of "responsible gun control" that would not endanger the rights of hunters and sportsmen.

Bush, for his part, kept largely mum about his record on guns because concealed-carry, which is permitted in his home state of Texas, arguably didn't fit with the "compassionate conservative" image he was trying to project to suburban voters (among whom he won nationally, 49 percent to 47 percent). When an NRA official boasted that if Bush won the White House, the NRA would work out of the Oval Office, gun-control advocates sought to capitalize on that statement by running a TV ad featuring that footage, but Bush, who has never belonged to the NRA, took care not to align himself with the organization and Gore never pressed the issue.

Other Republican candidates vying for suburban voters last year likewise either fudged or reversed their positions against gun control, such as now-Sen. George Allen's decision to come out in favor of the assault weapons ban in Virginia.

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