- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2001

By the standards of congressional outrage, action in the House yesterday was mild.

In a unanimous voice vote, the House condemned the March 5 shooting at a California high school that left two dead and 13 injured. The House offered its sympathy and declared the shootings "heinous atrocities."

But there was a key difference from any of the other school shootings that have marred the last few years but there were no calls for new gun control, no stinging denunciations of the National Rifle Association, no angry press releases, not even a token group of the pro-gun-control "Million Moms," a fixture of the debates in the last two years.

"We can honor [the victims] by resisting the temptation to make the quick fix, issue press releases, absolve ourselves from further responsibility," said Rep. Michael N. Castle, Delaware Republican.

Yesterday's modest measure capped a week of near silence on Capitol Hill following the killings at Santana High School near San Diego. While previous shootings triggered mass rallies and gun-related amendments to key legislation, this shooting has been met with little fanfare.

The House's strongest measure was saying the chamber "encourages the people of the United States to engage in a national dialogue on preventing school violence."

The difference, it seems, is an election in which gun control hardly figured at all and pro-gun-control candidates found themselves on the defensive. Most prominently, Democratic presidential hopeful Al Gore began his campaign calling for registration and licensing of firearms, but he ended it backing off the proposal as his poll numbers sagged sharply in rural areas.

"During the last election, the anti-gun people found out that there are millions and millions of Americans who don't want a Second Amendment freedom taken away or infringed upon," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican and a key figure in killing Democratic gun-control proposals raised in the wake of the 1999 killings at Columbine High School in Colorado.

The winner of the election, President Bush, has made clear he opposes new gun regulations and has called on his Justice Department to enforce existing laws more vigorously. Democrats say it is clear there is no point in pushing strong gun laws more vigorously since Mr. Bush surely will veto them.

"I think there's going to be more of a focus on things where we can get something done," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat and a leading advocate for stronger gun regulations. "Obviously, a proposal to expand the Brady law isn't going to happen," he added, referring to the 1993 law requiring background checks for most gun sales.

Mr. Schumer's own response to the California shooting was not new gun legislation, but instead a "code of responsibility" for parents who own guns.

A year ago, Democrats made "common-sense gun legislation" a daily mantra on the floor of both chambers of Congress. Female members of the House began every day by reading the names of youths killed in gun violence and accidents.

Today, however, the debate centers more on ways to combat media violence, enforce laws already on the books and restore a sense of responsibility in parents and children alike. Democrats yesterday sounded more like Republicans in many respects.

"We must restore, perhaps in ourselves, most certainly in our youth, a respect for life," said Rep. Eva Clayton, North Carolina Democrat.

"We are not talking about putting restrictions on people's behavior," said Rep. Bob Filner, California Democrat. "We are talking … about our positive responsibilities as human beings."

In 1999, after the Columbine shootings, the Senate spent days on emotional debate and passed a package of gun-related measures, including a requirement that gun dealers sell a trigger lock with every new handgun, a ban on all large-capacity ammunition magazines and requiring all sales at gun shows to be subject to the same background checks required by the Brady law at gun shops.

The House debated the same package for days, but ended up killing it in dramatic fashion when pro-gun-rights Democrats split with their pro-gun-control leadership over details of the provision on gun shows.

The matter languished for more than a year in a joint House-Senate committee chaired by Mr. Hatch that was considering a related bill. The whole proposal died when the 106th Congress ended in December.

"I think people are a little less enthused right now than they were, let's put it that way," Mr. Hatch said yesterday. "But I think it is still a political issue they'll bring up."

Mr. Schumer and other Democrats say they expect to see some of the defunct proposals from last year return, even the contentious gun-show provision.

But it's clear there is little rhetorical fire behind the debate at the moment.

In fact, only a handful of Democrats even mentioned new gun regulations during yesterday's House debate.

Even the most ardent gun-control advocate in Congress discussed the matter only indirectly. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, New York Democrat, lost her husband in a 1993 shooting on a commuter train in which her son was severely injured. She has based her congressional career on the issue and is usually a passionate and emotional speaker when the issue comes up.

"We cannot stop ignoring this issue… . Congress has failed to enact even the most modest proposal to reduce our children's access to firearms," she said in an unusually downbeat speech before turning and quietly walking out of the nearly empty House chamber.


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