WASHINGTON -- The House voted overwhelmingly yesterday to kill a package of firearms restrictions so watered down that gun control advocates refused to support it.
Democratic leaders and gun control supporters in both parties decided to defeat the bill after Republican leaders pushed through an amendment yesterday that not only fell short of Senate-passed restrictions but would also loosen some current gun laws.
The measure, defeated 280-147, was also opposed by moderate Republicans, as well as by the most vigorous gun rights advocates in both parties, who thought even its modest provisions were too great a burden on gun owners.
The result was that despite presidential pressure, public support after the recent school shootings and a very personal plea from the wife of a shooting victim, gun control advocates in the House came up empty-handed.
Their only hope is that gun control provisions will be made part of legislation produced by a House-Senate joint conference committee. The committee will meet within a few weeks to try to combine the Senate measure and a more narrow House bill that addresses cultural causes of juvenile crime. The resulting package will face a final vote in both chambers.
"We figured we were better off going into conference with the Senate with nothing on gun safety rather than with something that weakens current law," House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt said in explaining why so many Democrats -- 197 -- opposed the gun control bill.
Rep. Constance A. Morella, a moderate Montgomery County Republican, joined with all fourMaryland Democrats to vote against the measure. The three other Maryland Republicans -- Reps. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County and Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore -- voted in favor.
The Democrats' decision to topple the bill came at the end of three days of a rambunctious philosophical free-for-all over a variety of cultural, religious and legal approaches to dealing with youth violence.
The House passed the first of two separate bills, dealing mostly with cultural issues, late Thursday evening. Shortly after midnight, the House took up amendments to a second bill dealing exclusively with gun control and voted to weaken proposals already approved by the Senate.
The reversals were so great on the key issue of restricting the sale of firearms at gun shows, Democrats said, that they had no choice but to vote to kill the gun measure yesterday. They were most offended by a provision that would weaken required background checks of gun buyers.
President Clinton, who had threatened to veto the House gun measure before it was killed, called the House action "a great victory" for the gun lobby but "a great defeat for the safety of our children."
One of few smiles visible in the Capitol yesterday was the Cheshire grin of House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, who had worked to engineer a defeat of the Senate-passed gun measures.
"It was a great personal victory for me," DeLay said. "We stopped the knee-jerk reaction of the Democrats" to restrict gun access in the wake of the school shootings.
What's more, DeLay noted, the House passed the bill dealing with cultural influences, which he called a more significant factor in teen-age violence. The legislation also "gave us opportunities for early intervention, for tougher enforcement, for tougher punishment, for more freedom of expression of our faith."
"Guns have little or nothing to do with the root cause of the juvenile violence," DeLay said. "The Democrats chose today to play politics and to say no to everything."
Yesterday's action was a clear setback for Clinton, who had lobbied long-distance from Europe, trying to secure support for gun control from both Republican and Democratic House members.
Both parties will continue to fight a rhetorical campaign to claim the high road on child safety and crime issues considered potentially crucial in next year's congressional elections. But by forcing Democrats to kill a gun control bill -- even a weakened one -- Republicans, who mustered 137 votes for the measure, hope they have neutralized gun control as a campaign issue for Democrats.
Nevertheless, Democrats were chanting "six seats, six seats" early yesterday as the Republican majority was voting to weaken the Senate measure. Six seats are the margin of Republican control in the House.
Chiefly at issue was a Senate-passed requirement to extend the Brady law background checks, now required when guns are bought from licensed dealers, to nonlicensed dealers who trade at gun shows.
Gun shows have been identified by law enforcement authorities as a key source of weapons for juveniles, convicted felons and others who would not be able to buy from a dealer. At least two of the weapons used in the Littleton, Colo., shootings have been traced to gun shows.
The Senate bill would require background checks of purchasers of all firearms at gun shows and give law enforcement authorities up to three business days, if necessary, to investigate. That is the same time period the Brady law requires of sales by dealers.
But a House version, sponsored by Rep. John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, and blessed by the National Rifle Association, reduced the time limit to 24 hours. That reduced period would also have applied to licensed dealers trading at gun shows -- a weakening of the current Brady law.
The most poignant moment in the debate came about 1 a.m. yesterday, when Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat, made a final plea to her colleagues to support the Senate version. McCarthy came to Congress as a gun control activist after her husband was killed and her son was wounded in in 1993 by a gunman on the Long Island Rail Road.
"This is what I came to Washington for," she said, brushing away tears streaming down her face. "I made a promise to my son and to my husband. If there was anything that I could do to prevent one family from going through what I have gone through, then I have done my job. Let me go home. Let me go home."
McCarthy's proposal to adopt provisions identical to the Senate bill failed on a vote of 235-193.
Later in the morning, the House adopted other gun control provisions included in the Senate bill, including a requirement that safety locks be sold with guns, a prohibition against juveniles buying or owning assault weapons and a ban on the import of large-scale ammunition clips.
DeLay said the Democrats' decision to kill the bill because of the gun show language proved that they were playing politics: "If they're going to pick on that one little item out of the entire bill that addresses guns, it shows you that they keep moving the goal posts."
But Clinton clearly approved. "Maybe we go back to square one and pass a good bill," he told reporters in Cologne, Germany.