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Jewish World Review Oct. 7, 1999 /27 Tishrei, 5760

Morton Kondracke

Econophone

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Econophone

Will gun-control cause the GOP to shoot itself in the foot?


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- REPUBLICANS, INCLUDING Texas Gov. George W. Bush, had better pray that no deranged gunman shoots up a school or church next fall. Gun control is an issue poised to clobber the GOP in 2000.

In a presidential debate, if Bush tries to repeat his line after the Wedgwood Baptist church shooting -- that "government can't remove evil from the human heart" -- his Democratic rival can say, "Yes, governor, but it can remove the instrument of evil from the human hand."

And Democrats can run ads -- especially in suburban districts -- charging that when Republicans had a chance to put modest curbs on gun shows, they balked.

Every poll indicates that the public supports the strict handgun control measures recommended by Democratic presidential candidates Al Gore and Bill Bradley, which exceed by miles those being rejected by the GOP Congress.

The Gore-Bradley proposal to require all handgun owners to register their firearms was favored by a margin of 75 to 24 percent in a September poll by TNS Intersearch.

According to a CBS News poll in August, 79 percent would favor requiring all gun buyers to pass a safety course and obtain a photo license before purchasing a gun.

The modest measures that appear destined to fail in Congress this year have even more overwhelming support. More than 80 percent of adults, according to the CBS poll, favor instituting a three-day waiting period for a background check before obtaining a handgun, raising the minimum age for handgun purchases and requiring safety locks on handguns.

In the presidential race, polls indicate that Bush is at risk for signing a Texas law permitting people to carry concealed weapons. The CBS poll shows that the public opposes such laws, 61 to 33 percent. Bush aides claim he can defend the law by arguing that it requires persons to obtain a license and to undergo firearms training.

But that only invites a question in debate: If you favor licensing and training before a person can carry a concealed weapon, why not require the same for handgun ownership?

In Congress, Republicans aren't solely to blame for the doom facing gun control. House Democrats, seeking political advantage in 2000, are turning down every compromise offer being put forward by House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill.

The key stumbling block is the Democrats' demand for a three-day waiting period for background checks at gun shows and Republicans' insistence on just 24 hours.

Democrats rejected a Hyde proposal for a three-day wait if a gun purchaser did not clear a background check within 24 hours.

He is concocting other offers, but most Republicans are unlikely to support him, especially House Majority Leader Richard Armey (Texas) and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (Texas), who are strong allies of the National Rifle Association and defenders of the Second Amendment.

Democrats love to attack the NRA and pooh-pooh the Second Amendment, but polls indicate those are weaker tacks than simply advocating stronger controls. The TNS Intersearch survey showed that only 47 percent of U.S. adults think the NRA has too much power, while 17 percent said it has too little and 31 percent said it has the right amount.

The CBS poll showed that 48 percent of adults have a favorable impression of the NRA versus 37 percent unfavorable.

By 48 to 38 percent, the CBS poll showed, the public thinks the Second Amendment guarantees Americans the right to own guns and, by 61 to 35 percent, the public opposes a nationwide ban on handgun sales. Moreover, by 46 to 40 percent, adults think stricter gun law enforcement would have a greater effect than stricter gun control.

Politicians of both parties, if they want to be truly credible on gun violence, ought to favor stronger enforcement and stricter control.

The evidence suggests that, until recently, the Clinton administration has been lax in prosecuting gun-law violators.

One of the nation's most successful anti-crime efforts, Operation Exile, was instituted by local officials and federal prosecutors in Richmond, Va., not by the Justice Department in Washington.

Under the program, persons accused of committing state felonies while armed were turned over to be prosecuted under tougher federal gun laws. Richmond experienced a dramatic reduction in crime and the program has expanded to other localities -- only lately with administration support.

On the other hand, gun control also has proved its worth. The 1993 Brady law, mightily resisted by the gun lobby, prevented some 400,000 felons and other prohibited purchasers from buying handguns in its first five years and led to hundreds of arrests of wanted persons.

Republicans may escape trouble on the gun issue if the madmen of the country commit no massacres next year. In quiet times, guns are an important voting issue mainly for Second Amendment devotees.

But the odds are against the GOP. We've had highly publicized gun outrages in Littleton, Colo.; Atlanta; Los Angeles; and Fort Worth, Texas, in just nine months of 1999. There will be more in 2000.



JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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