WASHINGTON -- The fight for public opinion between the gun lobby and advocates of tougher gun control has been heated up by the recent school shootings and the highprofile election of actor Charlton Heston as president of the National Rifle Association.
Mr. Heston has vowed to seek a more favorable public image for his organization even as its staunchest foes continue to paint the NRA as a Neanderthal monster insensitive to the carnage resulting from the often unsupervised use of guns, especially in the hands of children.
The next round in the debate is likely to be waged over the future implementation of the socalled Brady law, which among other things requires a background check of anyone seeking to buy a handgun. The law will undergo an important enforcement change five months from now, when the current five-day waiting period for gun purchases expires.
Since the law, officially known as the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act, went into effect in early 1994, a prospective buyer has to wait five days while local and state law-enforcement officials undertake a background check to make sure the purchaser is not a convicted felon, indicted on a felony charge or otherwise ineligible under the law. It often takes that long to complete the check because there has been no nationwide, computerized system that can function more quickly.
But as of Nov. 30, the waiting period is to end under a "sunset" provision in the law, to coincide with the launching of a "National Instant Criminal Background Check System" to be operated by the Justice Department. Congress provided $230 million for the system, but gun-control advocates say it will not be fully effective because as many as half of the estimated 57 million criminal records in the country are not complete, computerized or otherwise accessible thorough the new system.
Furthermore, a prime gun-control group called Handgun Control Inc. maintains the waiting period is desirable not only to provide background checking time but also because it affords time for a cooling-off of mental states that often contribute to the commitment of murder and suicide.
For that reason, the gun-control forces are planning to seek an extension of the waiting period provision beyond Nov. 30 to coincide with use of the new "instant check" apparatus. But the NRA has opposed the waiting period as an unwarranted interference with the right of peaceable gun owners to buy them when they choose. Jim Manown, an NRA spokesman, says the organization will firmly oppose any extension effort, contending that the history of crimes of passion indicates a cooling-off period has had no appreciable effect.
The gun-control forces argue that the Brady law has been effective with a waiting period, citing a report the other day from the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics that in 1997 the law blocked the sale of 69,000 handguns to persons barred from purchasing them under its provisions. In addition to convicted felons, others with records of domestic violence and serious mental illnesses are ineligible. But that figure, the report said, constituted only 2.7 percent of the more than 2.5 million gun-purchase applications filled out at gun dealers around the country.
A strong NRA supporter, Republican Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, says: "During an instant check transaction the police know exactly where the felon is. He's at the gun store. In a waiting-period transaction, by the time the police review the record they have no idea where the felon is. If we are going to identify felons and fugitives who attempt to purchase firearms, the only way we can assure that they don't leave the store and get a gun by other means is to arrest them."
Thus the next fight over gun ownership and control is likely to be waged over an extension of the waiting period. The NRA's political and financial muscle in Congress is well-established. The question is whether all the furor over recent gun violence in the nation's schools and mean streets will bring strong public opinion to bear to overcome that muscle.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 6/26/98