WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives, bowing to a lobbying blitz by advocates of gun control and to public anger over violent crime, embraced legislation yesterday that requires
a waiting period for handgun purchases.
On a 239-186 vote, lawmakers endorsed the so-called Brady bill imposing a seven-day delay on would-be purchasers, allowing local police to check for criminal records and, if necessary, permitting them to block the sale.
The vote represented a sharp setback for the National Rifle Association, which in 1988 successfully pressured lawmakers into rejecting virtually identical legislation by 46 votes. Moreover, the comparatively wide margin of yesterday's victory seemed certain to provide critical momentum to companion legislation in the Senate, where the vote promises to be close.
"We live in a country in which a convicted felon can walk into a store and buy several guns at one time," said Representative Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., one of the legislation's principal sponsors. "This is the very model of common sense," he said of the legislation.
The measure was supported by all members of the Maryland delegation except Representative Beverly B. Byron, D-Md.-6th, who said there was little support for the bill in her district.
Even if the legislation clears the Senate, it would still have to be signed into law by President Bush, who repeated his threat yesterday to veto any gun-control bill that is not a part of his broader anti-crime package, which would extend the federal death penalty and limit federal court petitions by state prisoners on death row.
Before adopting the Brady bill -- named for former White House press secretary James S. Brady, who was paralyzed when he was shot during the 1981 assassination attempt on See BRADY, 17A, Col. 1BRADY, from 1APresident Ronald Reagan -- lawmakers voted 234-193 to reject an NRA-backed amendment that would have scuttled the waiting period in favor of a system of "instant checks" of criminal records by gun dealers.
The Brady bill would require gun dealers to notify police whenever a customer seeks to purchase a handgun. Police would be given seven days to conduct checks to determine if the prospective buyer had a criminal record or a documented history of mental illness.
Critics pointed out that the bill would not require police to conduct the checks and, instead, would merely give them the option of doing so. Some have suggested that such discretionary power could be used by police to harass or discriminate against would-be purchasers on the basis of race or economic status.
Others argued that the Brady bill would saddle already overworked and understaffed departments with additional paperwork while failing to snare gun-toting criminals, most of whom avoid purchasing weapons through legal channels.
"The answer to gun-carrying criminals is to crack down on them, put them away, not to divert law enforcement resources to man computers to see whether or not we can catch one out of a thousand" who might buy a gun through a legitimate gun dealer, said Representative George W. Gekas, R-Pa.
Opponents of the Brady bill advocated the NRA-backed legislation, authored in the House by Representative Harley O. Staggers Jr., D-W.Va., which would have required the Justice Department to set up a nationwide hot line for gun dealers to check a purchaser's criminal history. Supporters of the measure -- Representative Byron was among them -- likened such a "point of sale" check to the instant credit approval used for credit card purchases, arguing that it would thwart purchases by criminals and that it would protect others' constitutional right "to keep and bear arms."
"Gun-control advocates are attempting to blur the distinction between gun control and crime control," said Representative Harold L. Volkmer, D-Mo. "Confusing them will not accomplish the goal of preventing criminals from obtaining guns."
But Brady-bill supporters branded the Staggers bill a hoax, contending that it would take years for most jurisdictions to develop the recordkeeping systems that would have been needed.
"A vote for Staggers is purely and simply a vote to kill the Brady bill," said Representative Mel Levine, D-Calif., who called the Staggers bill "a cruel hoax" offering only a "vague promise of background checks in the 21st century."
The reversal of the gun lobby's political fortunes appears to have had much to do with changing public opinion. Increasingly, national opinion polls indicate strong public support for gun control: In one recent survey, 87 percent of the respondents favored policies spelled out in the Brady bill.
Despite a growing public sympathy for gun control, the NRA had been able to maintain an unstoppable coalition against the Brady bill -- until last week, say lawmakers, when wavering members defected to the gun-control camp.
Until yesterday, for example, Representative Les AuCoin, D-Ore., had opposed every gun-control proposal since his arrival in Congress in 1975. In 1988, he opposed the Brady bill. Yesterday, he apologized and voted with the majority.
"It was the worst mistake of my life," Mr. AuCoin said. "Twenty thousand Americans have been killed by handguns since the Brady bill was killed two years ago."
Following are Maryland representatives' votes on the two gun-control measures in the House yesterday:
.. .. .. .. .. .. Staggers .. .. .. .. .. .Brady
Byron .. .. .. .. .. . Yes .. .. .. .. .. .. .No
Bentley .. .. .. .. .. No .. .. .. .. .. .. Yes
Cardin .. .. .. .. .. . No .. .. .. .. .. .. Yes
Gilchrest .. .. .. .. . No .. .. .. .. .. .. Yes
Hoyer .. .. .. .. .. .. No .. .. .. .. .. .. Yes
McMillen .. .. .. .. .. No .. .. .. .. .. .. Yes
Mfume .. .. .. .. .. .. No .. .. .. .. .. .. Yes
Morella .. .. .. .. .. No .. .. .. .. .. .. Yes