If only Columbine High School had posted the Ten Commandments next to its football trophies, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold would never have killed anyone. This Charlton Heston logic–Moses meets NRA–was articulated by GOP Congressman Bob Barr, leader of the House gun-lobby mercenaries who in mid-June not only defeated background checks for gun-show weapons purchasers but passed the most vindictive youthful-offender bill ever and threw in the Ten Commandments for good measure.
Although the gun debate and the amendment encouraging the posting of the Ten Commandments in public buildings got the headlines, the juvenile crime bill to which they were both originally attached points up the politics involved. Senators and criminal-justice lobbyists had labored to turn a severe and simplistic youthful-offender bill into a relatively moderate measure that included funding for antiviolence programs long sought by children’s advocates. Then public horror at Littleton persuaded the Senate to append a gun-control amendment requiring the same three-day waiting period and background check for gun-show purchases as for weapons from other dealers.
When the Senate’s juvenile-crime-plus-background-check package hit the House it was Barr, last seen in the vanguard of the impeachment faction, who set out to derail it. Barr–with more than $81,000 in NRA contributions since 1994–proposed “poison pill” amendments so punitive they were sure to cost the bill its liberal support: harsh mandatory minimum sentences; federalization of youth gun crimes; prosecutors given unreviewable power to charge and incarcerate children as adults. Republicans then severed the gun measure from the child-punishment law–leaving the background checks as an unobstructed target for fierce lobbying, on which the NRA spent $1.5 million.
The demise of the background-check bill was engineered by longtime NRA ally and Democrat John Dingell with an amendment purporting to extend background checks but actually weakening the existing system. Other Democrats and moderate Republicans opposed the Dingell-amended measure, so gun regulation vanished. Meanwhile, Republicans “enhanced” the juvenile crime bill with the Ten Commandments and two other religious-right provisions. It was the worst of all worlds: no gun law, a bad youthful-offender bill and a constitutionally indefensible posting of religious doctrine. The juvenile crime bill now goes to House-Senate conference. (Please contact your Congress members immediately!)
The NRA’s House victory proved again the potency of its war chest. The election-finance-reform organization Public Campaign says that the NRA and its allies gave more than twenty-seven times as much to Congress members as handgun-control advocates did in 1997-98. But the victory also came amid indicators of the gun lobby’s decline. Lawsuits against gun companies or distributors have been filed in twenty cities and counties. The largest gun industry association, the American Shooting Sports Council, fearful of costly anticorporate liability suits, agreed to work toward some restrictions. A Pew Research survey finds 65 percent support for gun control, up from 57 percent in 1993, with the most dramatic shift among suburban Republican women.
Will the alarm of suburban parents translate into voting power at the polls? At the state level, the politics of guns is shifting rapidly: NRA proposals to weaken existing gun laws have faltered in Colorado and elsewhere, while new restrictions are pending in New York, California, Ohio and other states. In Utah, Mormon leaders have called for handgun restrictions, and some conservative Republicans there fear they’ll lose control of the legislature if they hew too closely to the NRA line.
Guns are already emerging as a fault line in the presidential campaign. George W. Bush lifted Texas’s 1870 prohibition against carrying concealed handguns. Al Gore denounced the NRA; Bill Bradley proposed national gun-violence measures, including limiting individual purchases to one gun per month, outlawing the manufacture of Saturday Night Specials and banning handguns from the homes of convicted domestic violence offenders.
It is no accident that Congress entangled juvenile crime and the Ten Commandments with the seemingly simple matter of background checks: Guns are a surrogate for profound debates over crime, race and the roots of violence. But for the first time in a generation, the pendulum is swinging away from the NRA. Bob Barr’s victory may prove as Pyrrhic as his success in winning the House impeachment resolution just a half-year ago.