The Senate's gun control flip-flop

Republicans close gun-show loophole with little Democratic support.

By Jake Tapper
May 14, 1999 4:00PM (UTC)
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On Thursday, a dozen or so Republican senators attempted to backtrack on their votes against the Democratic proposal for closing the background-check loophole for gun-show gun buyers.

Unwilling to throw their support behind the Democrats' proposal, the backtracking Republicans sponsored their own amendment to close the loophole. Not wanting to let Republicans get away with it, however, most Democrats in turn opposed the Republican amendment. It narrowly passed the Senate on Friday, 48-47, with only one Democrat, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, supporting it.


The loophole, backed by the National Rifle Association, allows the purchase of firearms at gun shows without background checks. The Democrats' original proposal, an amendment to the Juvenile Justice bill sponsored by Sen Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., would have closed the loophole. Only six Republicans supported the Democrats' original measure, however, and it lost in Wednesday's vote, 51-47.

Thursday, after taking a drubbing from President Clinton, Attorney General Janet Reno, the media and many of their constituents, a dozen or so Republican Senators -- including Oregon's Gordon Smith, Illinois' Peter Fitzgerald, and Maine's Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe -- converged on the floor of the Senate. They angrily told Republican leaders that they wanted to see a Republican solution or were considering switching their votes to the Democratic proposal. Smith went so far as to complain that he had been "misled" on the vote.

In response, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., quickly began working with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah, and Larry Craig of Idaho, an NRA board member, to close the loophole with a compromise amendment.


The Hatch-Craig-McCain amendment passed, but Democrats argued that it still had numerous loopholes with which they could not go along. Seven Republican senators -- Smith, Fitzgerald, John Chafee of Rhode Island, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Craig Thomas of Wyoming, Fred Thompson of Tennessee and John Warner of Virginia -- also voted no. Some thought it went too far; others thought it didn't go far enough. But most Republicans backed the amendment, and the Republican leadership charged that the Democrats were "politicizing" a sincere attempt to close the loophole.

The Democrats plead guilty as charged -- off the record, of course. The Republicans "have to be publicly shamed off of their extreme position," says one Senate Democratic leadership staffer. "This is the only way we have to effect some change here. Their position is indefensible; it's a position the vast majority of Americans don't share."

For the first time in a long while, the Democrats in the Senate feel like they have the Republicans on the run, and they're not about to let the moment pass easily.


"If you've got to eat crow," Lautenberg said on the Senate floor, "you've got to eat it when it's warm."

"You see them on the Senate floor, running around with their tails between their legs," says the Democratic staffer. "They're getting the shit kicked out of them in the media and they know it; they're in complete disarray. Basically, the country is seeing just how beholden the Republican caucus is to the NRA. That's an important lesson for the country to learn."


Images of Littleton have been looming large throughout this debate. All four firearms used in the massacre at Columbine High School are said to have been purchased at gun shows, where, if you have the cash, such guns are as readily dispensed as Twinkies. "For the sake of our children, I hope the Senate changes its mind and does the right thing," President Clinton had said.

The momentum in support of gun control seemed to strengthen late this week. On Friday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., won support for her amendment banning the importation of large ammo clips for assault weapons.

The Republicans are still in charge, however, and the GOP pushed forward a provision safeguarding Internet sellers of explosives and guns from criminal investigators as long as the sellers didn't know that buyers meant to commit criminal acts.


The whole bill might still vanish altogether anyway. Majority Leader Trent Lott is rumored to want to remove the Juvenile Justice Bill from debate. Lott has scheduled a "cloture" vote for Tuesday morning, to proceed with the bill on Y2K litigation liability reform. Democrats fear that, if the Senate proceeds with debate on Y2K, they'll never return to juvenile justice, which is one loser of an issue for the GOP majority. For that reason, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle is said to be whipping each and every Democrat to oppose Tuesday's cloture vote.

"I think the issue still has some legs," says the Democratic staffer.

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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