- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2000

Congressional Democrats yesterday joined Republicans in a call for tougher enforcement of existing gun laws but blamed the current level of enforcement on gun-control opponents, not lax Clinton administration policies.

"This is comprehensive enforcement that was done because it is the next logical step now that we have information" on gun crimes and trafficking collected by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) in the past seven years, said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat and sponsor of the bill.

Republicans say the Democrats are stealing their argument that the Clinton administration should enforce existing laws rather than demand new ones.

"This is probably an exercise in trying to cover your tail," said Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican.

The Democratic proposal comes a week after a rhetorical battle between the president and the National Rifle Association. Mr. Clinton accused the group of reflexively rejecting "common sense gun control," and the NRA accused the president of deliberately ignoring enforcement so he could use guns as a political issue.

The dispute became personal when NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said the president "tolerates a certain amount of killing" to further his political agenda. The White House branded the comment "sick" and has been using it in speeches advocating more laws to restrict gun ownership.

Mr. Schumer said the timing of his bill had nothing to do with that spat or with a $100 million Republican plan to expand Project Exile, a program developed in Richmond to vigorously prosecute gun crimes. Rep. Bill McCollum, Florida Republican, expects to introduce his version of Project Exile this morning.

Mr. Schumer's bill includes a national version of Project Exile. It also authorizes 500 new federal agents to inspect gun shops and greatly expands federal authority to investigate stores.

While they say the timing is a coincidence, Mr. Schumer and his supporters concede they are trying to force the NRA and congressional Republicans to back up their own rhetoric on enforcement.

"They've been talking about enforcement for two weeks," Mr. Schumer said. "Here it is. Support it."

"We agree with them… . We'd like to see everyone prosecuted," said David Bernstein, spokesman for Handgun Control Inc., which supports the legislation.

Republicans reacted cautiously yesterday, saying they are willing to look at the Democratic proposals but that they are not ready to endorse the bill.

"I would take this as a real encouragement," House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican, told reporters yesterday. "We have been talking about the need for enforcement for a long time.

"I think the Democrats are seeing the American people realize that enforcement is [the answer]."

NRA spokesman Bill Powers said he had not seen details of the bill but that the organization will support anything that promotes "zero tolerance" of gun crimes. But he appeared wary of Mr. Schumer's motives.

"Senator Schumer shouldn't be holding press conferences," Mr. Powers said. "He should be knocking on the door of the White House and demanding that the president change a policy that looks the other way on prosecutions."

The NRA and Republican critics say the Justice Department has failed to prosecute tens of thousands of convicted felons who have tried to buy weapons but were turned back by the instant background check system.

But Mr. Bernstein and Mr. Schumer said the fault for poor enforcement lies with gun-control opponents, particularly the National Rifle Association, not with the Clinton administration.

They said the NRA has opposed serious efforts to enforce the law, such as hiring more ATF agents and collecting information on gun sales.

"They say enforcement they don't know what it is," Mr. Schumer said.

Even if the two sides find agreement on a program like Project Exile, there is little chance they would be able to bridge their differences on new gun-control laws, which are stalled in a House-Senate conference committee.

Mr. Schumer said he would use procedural rules to block any compromise that does not include the Democratic version of the gun-control provisions. Sen. Robert C. Smith, New Hampshire Republican, said he probably would use those same rules to block any new gun legislation.

The bill under consideration by the committee includes new rules requiring gun shops to sell trigger locks with all new handguns, banning the sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines and clips, and banning youths from possessing certain semiautomatic weapons. The House and Senate have supported those proposals in some form.

The agreement breaks down, however, over how to regulate sales at gun shows. Most members of Congress favor making all gun-show sales subject to background checks like those conducted at gun shops. Currently, only some sales at shows are subject to checks.

But there is sharp disagreement over how long to allow for police to conduct the check, ranging from 24 hours to three business days.

The parties themselves are split. While the majority of Democrats support the new gun-control proposals, a significant minority of about 45 House dissidents opposes any new legislation. They allied with Republicans to pass a milder gun-show provision when the House debated a larger $1.5 billion juvenile-justice bill in June.

That prompted the majority of Democrats to ally with gun rights Republicans to kill all gun provisions from the juvenile-justice bill.

The Senate passed the juvenile-justice bill in May with the gun-show provisions, setting up the conference committee deadlock as the two sides try to hash out a compromise that has any hope of passing either chamber.

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