WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Once again, crunch time is approaching on the Brady bill, the legislation that would impose a five-day waiting period on the sale of handguns while a check is made to determine that the prospective buyer has no criminal record. And its strongest advocates are worried that once again, despite overwhelming public support, it may fall between the cracks for lack of a major push by President Clinton, who says he favors it.
The bill, named for James Brady, former President Ronald Reagan's press secretary severely wounded in the 1981 attempt on Reagan's life, has been before Congress for six years. It is to undergo markup in the House in a few days as part of a comprehensive crime bill. In the Senate, it is being considered separately and is expected to come up after the Senate's crime bill, slated for consideration in the coming week.
The concern of the anti-gun forces is not that there will be insufficient votes to pass the Brady bill, but that in the absence of a stated priority by the White House, it may be lost in the shuffle as Congress struggles to finish its work and go home for the year. It is an unfounded fear, Democratic congressional sources say, but it persists nonetheless.
The Brady bill actually was passed in the House and in the Senate as part of another crime bill in 1991, but the gun lobby had an ally in the White House in George Bush, who threatened to veto it. With that cloud over the issue, the Senate failed to invoke cloture on a House-Senate conference report and the measure never got to his desk.
This year, President Clinton has paid strong lip service to the Brady bill. In his weekly radio address two weeks ago, the president talked about "an epidemic of violence" in the country and urged passage of the bill, and of the broader crime bill as well.
But the Brady bill's chief proponents, Handgun Control Inc. and the National Coalition to Ban Handguns, say that if the president is making a concerted effort to expedite its passage, they don't know about it.
"While he certainly has expressed strong comments about wanting the Brady bill," says Susan Whitmore of Handgun Control Inc., "the time comes when you've got to do more about getting it there [to the White House]."
And Jeff Muchnick, legislative director of the coalition, observes: "I don't think the White House has focused on this. Clinton has said that if it gets to his desk, he will sign it. But I don't think he's made an effort to get it there."
What these gun-control advocates fear, they say, is that the heavy Clinton agenda, which is topped by a drive for a successful vote on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) before Thanksgiving, will shunt the Brady bill aside. "We're getting concerned about the calendar running out on us," Whitmore says, noting that meanwhile 65 Americans are being killed every day by handguns.
There was a time when any such gun-control legislation would never have gotten this far, what with the National Rifle Association, the mainstay of the gun lobby, throwing its political and financial clout into the fray. But the NRA has taken so many hits around the country in recent years that it no longer can exert an automatic veto on efforts to curb the sale of guns.
In the approaching gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, although gun control has been part of the debate in each state, the NRA is not regarded as a particularly formidable foe in either race.
hTC In New Jersey, Democratic Gov. Jim Florio, who pushed a ban on assault weapons through his Legislature against NRA opposition, is favored to be re-elected. In Virginia, Republican George F. Allen with NRA backing is leading Democrat Mary Sue Terry. But he is not pledging to roll back the law, passed by retiring Democratic Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and fought by the NRA, to restrict gun sales to one a month in a state that had been a principal trafficker.
The Brady bill itself is a modest step in gun control. Other proposals have been or are about to be offered in Congress to ban the sale of assault weapons, adopt the Virginia one-buy-a-month limit, restrict gun dealer licensing and sharply increase taxes on gun and ammunition purchases. But the Brady bill is the anti-gun forces' first order of business, and they are looking to Clinton to tell Congress he wants it on his desk before they go home for the year.