What did Democrats sacrifice to win gun control?

The Republicans got a Draconian juvenile justice bill liberals had been determined -- until last month -- to defeat.

Published June 4, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Since when do liberal Democrats support the death penalty? Since when does Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy support mandatory minimum sentences for 14-year-old offenders? Since when does California Sen. Barbara Boxer turn a deaf ear to the disproportionate number of African-Americans in prison?

Since Thursday, May 20, 1999.

That's when the Violent and Repeat Juvenile Accountability and Rehabilitation Act passed the Senate, 73-25, with nearly unanimous Democratic support. And while debate over the gun-control provisions in the act, known as the juvenile justice bill, received much fanfare and media ballyhoo, what is less well-known are the conservative Republican measures that constitute the larger share of it.

These were provisions that Democrats in the Senate had adamantly opposed last year, creating an impasse on legislative action and sticking the bill in senatorial purgatory. Then known as S10, the bill was reported out of the Judiciary Committee but it never hit the Senate floor because so many Democrats found much of the bill irreparably odious.

But it lives! Even though Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., took a lot of right-wing heat for his role in the passage of the juvenile justice bill's gun-control measures, in a just and fair world his conservative critics would also be giving him major props. Because when Lott went looking for a bill that would allow the Senate to look like it was addressing the massacre at Columbine High School, it was a modified S10 that he picked -- a fine right-wing horse to which he allowed the Democrats to hitch their gun-control wagon.

With some tweaking, the bill that the Senate passed a few weeks ago, with added gun-control amendments, is the same one the Los Angeles Times described as taking a "rigid, counterproductive approach" to juvenile crime prevention, the same one the St. Petersburg Times called "an amalgam of bad and dangerous ideas."

How could Lott have so easily given S10 a pretty new dress and shoved it out on the Senate dance floor, where so many Democrats lined up to give it a big fat smooch?

"I don't think people had any serious awareness of what was in the juvenile justice bill," says Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. Thus, pro-gun conservatives should take solace in the fact that left-wing civil liberties and civil rights groups are now as miserable about the bill as they are -- and specifically about the way the bill was handled. The world's most deliberative body opted not to deliberate all that much on juvenile justice in this heated go-round.

How could liberals like Kennedy, Boxer, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, Michigan Sen. Carl Levin -- in fact, every Democrat present except for Feingold and Minnesota's Paul Wellstone -- not have known what was in the bill?

Good question, Republicans say. "This bill has been around for two years, we didn't 'sneak' anything through," says Jeanne Lopatto, press secretary for the Senate Judiciary Committee. "We had hearings, a [Judiciary] Committee mark-up and quite a lengthy debate on the bill. All these issues have been aired in the last two years."

"The bill was hijacked by two different agendas," Feingold explains, "by those who were supporting, after Columbine, certain aspects of gun control, and by those who wanted to use it as an excuse to blame Hollywood and TV. But the bill is supposed to be about intervening, and addressing problems with juveniles -- how to get an 11- or 12-year-old kid on the right track. The Senate ended up approving a bill that is very harmful in terms of creating wise public policy. And also very regressive."

Calling the Senate bill "mean-spirited and wasteful," Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., a member of the House Judiciary Committee, says that he "was disappointed at the Senate action. In the House, we have two juvenile justice bills that are constructive, that we have had hearings on and that are a result of a bipartisan consensus -- not only of politicians, but of experts."

Scott fears what might happen to the House's bills in the current climate, given that the Senate set the debate on what he feels is the wrong path. "Once you allow explosive politics to set in, there's no telling what might happen."

Explosive politics carried the day in the Senate, advocates say. Senate Democrats "sold their souls for gun control," is how Rachel King, legal counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, puts it.

King and other analysts from liberal advocacy organizations rattle off a laundry list of problems they have with the bill that passed so overwhelmingly just a few weeks ago.

These provisions include creating a new death penalty for animal-rights activists and eco-terrorists who kill, one of Sen. Orrin Hatch's pet causes due to recent violence in his home state of Utah. "Senators were laughing on the floor [of the Senate] when that was being voted on, it was so ridiculous," Feingold reports. "Even its supporters. We were frivolously voting for an expansion of the death penalty -- it reminded me of when I was in the [Wisconsin] state Legislature, the seriousness with which we passed a Girl Scout week resolution."

Another provision under fire from liberal groups includes establishing mandatory minimums for young criminals. "We don't like mandatory minimums for anyone," says the ACLU's King. "But especially for children. Lots of things drive children to commit crimes -- it's unhealthy to take away a judge's ability to do something more creative or useful for a specific" juvenile offender. "When this bill passed, Senate Republicans were saying, 'We can't believe they voted for this.'" The juvenile justice bill also makes it easier to prosecute children as adults, and unlocks the criminal records of juveniles, heretofore sealed once they reach adulthood.

The most controversial measure in the bill, however, and the provision that was the largest obstacle to S10 reaching the floor of the Senate last year, would repeal a requirement that states assess and make plans to combat what is called "Disproportionate Minority Confinement." In 1988, Congress passed a law requiring states to assess and implement strategies to combat the fact that larger proportions of minority youth, especially African-Americans, are locked up than whites.

Hatch wanted this law repealed.

But juvenile offenders who are African-American are treated with more severity in every step on their path in the justice system, supporters of the 1988 provision say. According to statistics from the Department of Justice, black kids between the ages of 10 and 17 constitute 15 percent of the U.S. population, 26 percent of juvenile arrests, 32 percent of the referrals to juvenile court, 41 percent of those kids detained in delinquency cases, 46 percent of the juveniles secured in correctional facilities and 52 percent of the juveniles transferred to adult criminal courts. Minority kids on the whole constitute 68 percent of the kids in juvenile detention facilities -- a percentage that far exceeds that of minority kids at the beginning of the process, when they're first arrested.

And as Wellstone pointed out on the Senate floor, "black males and females were six times more likely to be admitted to state juvenile facilities than their white counterparts -- same crimes, six times more likely. Property crimes: Black males were almost four times more likely to be admitted to state juvenile facilities than white males, and black females were almost three times more likely to be committed than white females. Drug offenses: Black males were confined at a rate 30 times that of white males. In fact, among all offense categories, black youth were more likely to be detained than white youth during every year between 1985 and 1994 ... These are damning statistics."

Not, apparently, to Hatch, who -- throughout the S10 debate in 1997 and 1998 -- insisted the Disproportionate Minority Confinement requirements be removed from law altogether.

In the 1998 debate over S10, "Hatch and [Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff] Sessions and a bunch of other senators and staffers wanted that stuff out of there," reports Jason Ziedenberg, a policy analyst with the liberal Justice Policy Institute. "It got to the ludicrous point that Republican Senate staffers suggested that instead of the word 'race,' the bill should use the word 'class.' So we had these Republican staffers turning around and becoming Marxists." The suggestion didn't take. "It died on that issue," Ziedenberg says. "In the final hours, the Republicans wouldn't allow any mention of race, and the Democrats wouldn't allow the issue of race to die."

Not so this year. According to Ziedenberg and others, Patrick Leahy -- the ranking Democrat on Judiciary -- didn't put up half as much of a fight on the issue this time. "Leahy's staffers were front and center last year," Ziedenberg says. This time, he says, "they folded their cards." Leahy press secretary David Carle insists that this year's bill was much improved from last year's, and explains that Democrats tried to refine it even further during the amendment process.

And indeed, on May 19, Wellstone, Kennedy, Feingold and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced an amendment to restore the "Disproportionate Minority Confinement" requirement.

"You still can't ignore the fact that these kids are committing crimes," countered Hatch, who hails from a state that is 1 percent black, during debate over the Wellstone-Kennedy amendment. "Just because you would like the statistics to be relatively proportionate, if that isn't the case, because more young people commit crimes from one minority classification than another, it doesn't solve the problem by saying states should find a way of letting these kids out ... If there is literally a civil rights violation or a discrimination against minority youth, then that is a problem I think would need fixing. But I don't think that is a case that has been made so far."

A majority of Hatch's colleagues agreed with him, and the Wellstone-Kennedy amendment was voted down -- or "tabled," to be precise -- by a largely party-line vote of 52-48. Republican Sens. John Chafee of Rhode Island, Jim Jeffords of Vermont and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania joined the Democrat minority.

That angered members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who were already in an uproar due to recent high-profile police abuse cases -- the NYPD's brutality against Abner Louima and killing of Amadou Diallo, the Riverside, Calif., police shooting of Tyisha Miller and increased attention to the issue of police stops for "driving while black."

"The problem could be racial prejudice on the part of the criminal justice system, it could be that prevention programs need to be placed in high crime areas -- but you don't know what it is unless you address the problem," says Bobby Scott, who is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. "But the suggestion that you don't even have to look is ridiculous. The politics of the juvenile justice bill in the Senate became so overwhelmed by the gun provisions that people paid very little attention to the other provisions in the bill."

Feingold agrees. "One of the ways we prevent some of this stuff is to give a bill proper committee consideration," he says. "When you get into a committee hearing, you can make an argument against some provision that is just extreme, and often you're able to shame people into backing off. When you take the committee role out, you end up passing a lot of stuff that has not been properly considered and vetted. Especially when the leadership is urging you to look at the big picture."

But the Senate Democratic leadership saw the gun control issue as a political winner, and chose to ignore what they'd fought in previous versions of the bill. "Politically, the bill represents a loss for Republicans and a win for Democrats -- even if we don't like everything that's in it," said one Senate staffer in the Democratic leadership.

Many liberal groups express hope that some of the bill's problem provisions can be rectified in the House. Feingold says that the presence of real, live African-Americans in the House should help. "During debate over the bill, I looked across the room and I noticed that now -- with the loss of [ex-Illinois] Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, there are no African-Americans in the Senate," he says. "Had there been an African-American on the floor of the Senate, that racial disparity provision would not have passed."

But the Democratic leadership staffer insists Feingold and advocacy groups are missing the big picture. "The advocacy groups are dealing with the world as it ought to be," the staffer says. "The Senate is a place where we deal with the world as it is. On balance, it represents a meaningful step forward in the efforts to keep guns out of the hands of kids and to reduce some gun violence. We had to take some bad with the good, but we were willing to do it. It does suck, but that's just the way it is."

By Jake Tapper

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

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Barbara Boxer D-calif. Gun Control Guns Patrick J. Leahy D-vt.