As Atlanta mourns, Washington waits

The massacre of 12 people comes on the eve of the House's consideration of this year's gun control legislation. Don't expect any tough new laws.

Published July 30, 1999 10:30AM (EDT)

In Washington, where the nation's recent gun massacres have
led to several proposed new laws, lawmakers
Friday didn't seem to think that the latest slaughter -- by Atlanta
day trader Mark Barton, 44, who killed 12 people including his wife and two children before killing himself -- would have any legislative ramifications.

The April murders at Columbine High School were easily attributed to,
among other things, a National Rifle Association-supported loophole in the law exempting
firearms purchasers at gun shows from background checks. Guns used in
that shooting, which left 15 dead, were purchased at a Colorado gun
show, where little more than cash on hand is necessary to buy a gun.

Legislative remedies to prevent tragedies like the Atlanta shooting were not as
quick to spot. "There still may not be any way from preventing something like this
from happening," Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., said in an
interview with Salon News. "But this should prompt us to do something
on the federal level." Law enforcement, he said, "should at least
know the people with guns, know their history, know their problems,
know if they have mental problems, know if they've been suspects in
other crimes -- like this man, who was suspected of killing his last
wife and her mother."

Still, gun control advocates like Lewis felt the need to do something after Thursday's killings. At the very least, Lewis said, "It must remind us once again that we
must do something. We can pray for the victims, we can mourn the
dead, but in the end we must act."

Coincidentally, Friday morning the House voted on its conferees for the
House-Senate Conference Committee meeting on the Juvenile Justice
Bill -- the main vehicle for gun control proposals in this year's Congress. According to a House leadership aide, the conferees were
instructed to figure out a way to prevent criminals from purchasing
firearms at gun shows -- though not to comprehensively close the
gun-show loophole.

As indicative of how tough it is for pro-gun control legislators to
accomplish anything in the existing Congress, it was apparently
necessary to instruct the conferees to refrain from weakening any
existing gun laws.

When asked if there were anything Congress could do to prevent such
tragedies from occurring, John Czwartacki, a spokesman for Senate
Majority Leader Trent Lott, said that "this is the problem with a
democratic society. There are laws on the books, and you gotta
enforce them, but when you have a suicidal psychotic, there's not much
government can do." Czwartacki further observed that progress had
finally been made on the Juvenile Justice Bill as the Senate -- which
had been held up by the actions of Sen. Bob Smith, I-N.H., was able to
appoint its conferees for the Juvenile Justice bill on Wednesday.

John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.,
said, "Its obviously tragic. You have these nutcases doing this stuff
and it makes you wonder about your own security. I mean, anyone who
kills his own kids is a sicko." When asked if there were anything
Congress could do to prevent further incidents, Feehery said, "You
could outlaw sickos, but I'm not sure if you can do that. Unless you
have everyone carry a gun."

Feehery experienced a similar incident one year ago this month, on
July 24, 1998, when he worked for Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and a
paranoid schizophrenic named Russell Weston Jr. burst into the office
with a revolver. "When a sicko came into our office, we had someone
to protect us," Feehery said, referring to Officer John Gibson, one
of two Capitol Hill police officers to lose his life in Weston's
attack. "Unfortunately, the people in these offices in Atlanta had no
one to protect them. It makes you scratch your head. You want to be
protected from these kinds of characters, but I don't know what the
answer is."

Police announced Friday that the 9 mm Glock pistol Barton used
was purchased legally in 1993. Police added that the .45-caliber Colt
handgun he also used for his slaughter was an older model, and somewhat
harder to trace.

But regardless, there apparently was no reason for Barton to be
denied the right to buy any gun. Even though Barton was a suspect in
the Labor Day 1993 murders of his first wife, Deborah Spivey Barton,
36, and her mother, Eloise Powell Spivey, 59, the police were never
able to amass enough evidence to indict him. Thus, with no criminal
record, Barton should have had no problem legally buying a weapon;
guns are as easy to get in Georgia as beer.

"He could have gone to a gun shop, he could have gone to a gun show,
he could have gone to a flea market and bought a gun without even
giving his name," said Lewis.

Further, Georgia has especially
lax gun laws,
permitting almost all non-felons to carry concealed
weapons if they so choose, with little law enforcement say in the
matter. It is not yet known if Barton had a concealed weapon
license, but there is little reason to believe that he would have
been denied such a license.

Even if a wary neighbor had been tipped off to Barton's
mental instability, there is nothing in Georgia law that would
give law enforcement the means to take his legally purchased gun from
him. Federal law prohibits those who have been legally judged to be
mentally ill, as well as anyone involuntarily committed to a mental
institution, from buying or owning a firearm.

Barton did not fit into that category, although, during the custody
hearings for Barton's (now-dead) children in 1993, a district
attorney who reviewed Barton's psychological tests said that the
results "to this day make me shudder."

Handgun Control Inc.'s Sarah Brady pointed out, however, that a
Connecticut law that will go into effect Oct. 1 will give law enforcement the right -- under stringent conditions -- to remove
guns from the homes of those who are deemed a significant threat to
the community.

Such a law would seem to have little chance of passing either
the House or the Senate in the current
political climate, where members of Congress, according to Lewis, "are hostage
to the NRA."

Comparing Barton to other shooters known in their neighborhoods as
more than a bit unstable -- like Matthew Beck in Connecticut, Carl
Drega in New Hampshire, Di-Kieu Duy in Utah, Gian Luigi Ferri in
California and Russell Weston in Washington, D.C. -- Brady said that like them, "Barton was a walking time bomb, and at least some people,
prior to the shootings, recognized that fact."

Barton's rampage seems to have been preceded by at least one
homicidal rage that didn't involve guns. His first wife and
mother-in-law were hacked to death in an Alabama trailer park by a
knife that police were never able to locate. And before Thursday's shootings, Barton appears to have bludgeoned to death both of
his kids from that first marriage, 7-year-old Elizabeth Mychelle, or
"Shelly," and 12-year-old Matthew, as well as his second wife, Leigh
Ann, 27, in his Stockbridge, Ga., apartment.

That's three, or possibly five, notches on Barton's belt before a gun
necessarily even fell into his hand. Though, of course, the luxury of
distance and rapid fire that guns provide for homicidal maniacs can't
be beat by knives or blunt instruments. Hence, Barton was easily able
to kill nine people and wound 12 others in two Atlanta offices without anyone touching
a hair on his head.

It is probably worth noting that even if Barton were the poster boy
for NRA-backed gun loopholes, even if he had been a convicted felon who
purchased an Uzi at a gun show -- that wouldn't necessarily signal a
call to action in the halls of Congress. It was a year ago this week that two Capitol Hill police officers were shot right outside the office of DeLay, who has
received $28,000 in NRA money since 1986. That tragedy hasn't
affected DeLay's stance on gun control one iota.

"Is it going to take something like this to happen in all 435
congressional districts in America, in all 50 states, before we do
something?" an exasperated Lewis asked.

By Jake Tapper

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

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

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