Md.'s Roscoe Bartlett backs legislation to limit federal-state gun control laws


WASHINGTON -- Vowing to protect the rights of gun owners, Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett has launched a full-scale attack on state and local gun-control laws with a little-noticed piece of legislation.

The measure would enshrine in federal law the right of Americans to use firearms to defend their families and homes.

Such a law would give gun owners a new, potentially powerful legal tool when they challenge state or local laws that violate that right "in any manner."

Mr. Bartlett, a Republican from Frederick, said he fears that the rights of gun owners are being destroyed by a flood of local gun-control laws that he asserts have failed to slow crime.

"There isn't a shred of evidence that any of these laws have any effect on crime," he said.

Mr. Bartlett's proposal is part of a bill endorsed by the House Firearms Legislation Task Force, a group appointed by House Speaker Newt Gingrich that includes Mr. Bartlett, Rep. Steve Stockman, a Texas Republican, and four other ardently anti-gun control lawmakers.

Attention on the bill has been focused mostly on its repeal of the federal ban on assault weapons. But gun-control advocates have denounced the 6th District congressman's measure, saying it would overturn hard-won gun laws in Maryland and elsewhere.

"This provision is very broad and, we think, very, very dangerous," said Vincent DeMarco, community outreach director for Handgun Control Inc. and a former gun-control lobbyist in Annapolis. "I think major state laws could be in jeopardy."

Mr. Bartlett's measure to expand gun owners' rights in the home threatens, for example, a Maryland law that requires gun owners to keep their weapons out of the reach of children to prevent household shooting accidents, Mr. DeMarco said.

Under the measure, Mr. DeMarco said, a gun owner could conceivably assert in federal court that the child-safety provision violates his right to defend his home adequately.

Lobbyists on the issue say that the gun measure, including Mr. Bartlett's provision, stands a good chance of passing the Republican-controlled House later this year.

Its Senate chances are less clear, and President Clinton has vowed to veto any bill repealing the assault-weapons ban, an action that also would doom the Bartlett measure.

Rep. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee that will consider the gun bill, calls Mr. Bartlett's measure "the most extreme position that I have seen in a long time" and predicts that it could wipe out "hundreds" of state and local laws.

In 1993, his first year in Congress, Mr. Bartlett introduced legislation that resembles his current proposal. But coming from a Republican in a Democratic-controlled Congress, the bill was "dead on arrival."

In his earlier version of the measure, Mr. Bartlett sought to establish a broader right for citizens to use guns to defend themselves and their families in their homes and elsewhere.

"A number of us would not go along with the broader interpretation of that," said Rep. Bill McCollum, chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee that will consider the new measure, and who, like Mr. Bartlett, is a member of the task force on firearms. "But a number of us felt the home was the perfectly appropriate place to put the emphasis."

The bill, which appeared to be moving quickly toward passage in the House, has been put on hold for at least several weeks while the Judiciary Committee is busy with anti-terrorism legislation in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing.

Mr. Bartlett, 68, says his measure is necessary both to overturn oppressive state gun-control laws and to prevent prosecutors from bringing charges against law-abiding citizens who use guns to defend themselves against criminals.

Mr. Bartlett cited the case of Donald E. Campbell, a Michigan businessman who was charged in 1991 with assault and firearms violations after shooting a man who was breaking into his music store for the second consecutive night. Prosecutors eventually dropped the charges.

Such prosecutions are too widespread, the congressman said, although he said he had only anecdotal evidence to support that view.

"There are enough of those horror stories around to make one come alert," Mr. Bartlett said. "Cases where the person who used the gun to protect themselves is made to be the criminal. That's ridiculous."

Mr. Bartlett's bill says that the Constitution's Second Amendment "guarantees the right to possess firearms."

That argument, however, has been repeatedly rejected by federal courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to disturb those rulings. The National Rifle Association and other gun supporters continue to make the argument anyway.

The Bartlett measure seeks to reaffirm "the right to use firearms within the home" in self-defense against threats of injury.

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