Nation & World

House unanimously backs bill to improve gun-buyer screening

WASHINGTON - The sniper shootings have cast the politics of gun violence onto the national scene, sending Congress scrambling to address a fiercely partisan issue that has become a focus of the election season.

The House unanimously passed a widely popular gun safety measure yesterday that aims to close loopholes in the federal system that screens prospective gun buyers.

But the bipartisan action came as President Bush made public his opposition to a more far-reaching idea that gun control advocates have called for since the sniper attacks: a national ballistic "fingerprint" system that could link bullets found at crime scenes to a specific gun - and perhaps to a suspect.

That idea, which sharply divides Democrats and Republicans, is unlikely to achieve the consensus it needs to advance in Congress this year.

Bush's spokesman said the president is concerned about the "accuracy and reliability" of a national ballistic fingerprinting system. Such a system would create a database to track guns using the unique markings left on bullet casings by the grooves and heat inside the gun barrels.

"These are the acts of a depraved killer, who has broken and will continue to break laws," said Ari Fleischer, Bush's spokesman. "And so the question is not new laws. The question is the actions here represent the values in our society."

The contrast between the bipartisan House vote and the sharp opposition of many in Washington to the fingerprint system reflects the delicate line that political leaders are walking on the gun control issue.

With a serial sniper roaming the area, and with three weeks till the elections that will determine control of the House and Senate, lawmakers are eager to show they are acting decisively to prevent gun crimes. But they are reluctant to get caught up in a divisive debate on an issue that could sway voters this close to an election, or of appearing to politicize a terrifying threat.

So it was that House Republican leaders moved quickly last week to schedule action on the bill passed yesterday. It would give states incentives to provide better information to federal authorities for background checks of gun buyers.

The bill is backed by the National Rifle Association and gun control groups.

House Republican leaders hoped the action might strengthen the electoral fortunes of Rep. Constance A. Morella, the Montgomery County Republican and gun control advocate who is one of her party's most vulnerable incumbents. Morella, an original co-sponsor of the bill, requested quick action on it.

"I'm not politicizing it, but the leadership really came through for me," Morella said in an interview. Asked whether she thought election-season pressure had improved the measure's prospects, she said, "I think it helped."

The measure gave House members, who are up for re-election Nov. 5, the chance to vote "yes" on a gun-control bill. Another is Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the Maryland Republican who is locked in a fierce gubernatorial race against Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, in which his voting record on gun control has become an issue.

Ehrlich, who signed onto the bill as a co-sponsor Sept. 9, "sees this as a great way to toughen background checks, which he's always supported, and an opportunity to strengthen and expand a proven gun-crime deterrent," said his spokesman, Henry Fawell.

Townsend has criticized Ehrlich's gun control record, which includes a 1996 vote to lift a ban on assault weapons; her campaign recently aired a television ad against him depicting one.

Ehrlich has responded with charges that Townsend is inappropriately trying to exploit the sniper shootings for political gain.

In comments to CNN yesterday, Townsend brushed off that criticism, saying, "It's very important that people know the difference between my position and my opponent's.

"I have suffered more than most from gun violence," said Townsend, whose father, Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated by a gunman.

The background check legislation, which Senate aides say might also pass that chamber in short order, would authorize $350 million for grants to states that automate and share with federal authorities records that could disqualify people from owning guns. Those include a history of serious mental illness, a felony conviction or a pending felony indictment.

It is a widely supported bill co-sponsored by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat who is one of the House's leading gun control activists, and Rep. John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who is one of its fiercest protectors of gun rights.

In the Senate, a similar bill has the support of an equally unlikely alliance: Sens. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, and Larry E. Craig, an Idaho Republican.

Proponents plan to hold a news conference today to call for the measure's quick enactment.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, said yesterday that he had not looked at the bill closely.

"We want to do all that we can to work with law enforcement officials, providing them with resources, providing them with additional authority if it is required, to successfully complete their investigative effort," Daschle said. "We will look at whether or not this meets those criteria. If it does, clearly we want to be as aggressive in moving the legislation as possible."

It has been illegal since 1968 for convicted felons, fugitives and those who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution to own guns.

The 1993 Brady law - named for James S. Brady, the press secretary who was disabled during the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan - created a national instant background check system. It requires that prospective gun buyers be screened for criminal convictions and other information that could disqualify them from owning a weapon.

But many states don't provide the federal government with information that could disqualify people from owning firearms. According to a report by Americans for Gun Safety, roughly 10,000 "prohibited buyers" have been able to buy firearms over the past 2 1/2 years.

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., the Wisconsin Republican who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, berated Maryland officials yesterday for failing to provide the government with such information. He pointed to letters from Maryland officials in which they said they could no longer provide such records unless the government reimbursed the cost of compiling them.

Though the background check measure has long been a priority of gun control advocates, they have begun to push the national ballistic fingerprint idea since the sniper shootings began.

"The unique markings, called the 'ballistic fingerprint,' that every gun leaves on a fired bullet or shell casing have always been helpful in investigating shootings," Sarah Brady, who runs the Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence with her husband, said in a statement. "Doesn't it make sense for us to give law enforcement the tools they need in order to solve such crimes?"

In the past, Ehrlich has said that as governor, he would review Maryland's gun laws - including its own fingerprinting system, whose efficacy he has questioned - with an eye toward repealing laws that do not work.

But lately, even as aides say Ehrlich's position has not changed, he has refrained from directly challenging the fingerprinting system.

Maryland and New York are the only states that have such gun fingerprinting systems. They apply only to handguns, not to rifles, and only to guns sold in the state.

"He wants to strengthen and expand those programs that work," said Fawell, Ehrlich's spokesman. "Those that are in question should be studied and improved upon."

Bush has taken a similar position. Echoing an argument made by the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups, Fleischer also said Bush is concerned that a ballistic fingerprinting system might violate gun owners' privacy.

"The president does believe in the right of law-abiding citizens to own weapons," Fleischer said.

Schumer has said he wants Congress to address the fingerprinting issue this year, though that appears unlikely.

"It may be too late to look at it this year, but it is something we need to look at," Daschle said. "It's important for us to review all of those laws and find ways to ensure that law enforcement has every tool available."