Political shootout over Columbine

As the anniversary of the high school massacre approaches, President Clinton meets with opponents to see whether everyone can agree to close the gun-show loophole.

By Dave Cullen
Published April 13, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

For better or worse, the politicization of the Columbine tragedy edged up a notch Wednesday, with President Clinton's second visit tied to the massacre.

He returned to Colorado just a week before the anniversary to support a local gun-control initiative spawned in the wake of the tragedy -- to close the loophole on background checks for weapons purchased at gun shows -- and vocally supported by Tom Mauser, father of one of the 14 students killed.

The rally was attended by most prominent local Democrats, including Denver Mayor Wellington Webb. U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt also spoke briefly at the town meeting. But Colorado Republican leaders snubbed Clinton, publicly rebuking his visit and refusing to appear with him.

Republican Gov. Bill Owens, who supports the specific measure Clinton came to endorse, refused even to participate with him in a town-hall meeting staged later in the afternoon by MSNBC, and hosted by Tom Brokaw. He later agreed to join a second hour of the program, to be conducted in the evening, once Clinton had left town.

But the Denver visit may have produced some movement on the gun-control issue in Washington. Just before the meeting with Brokaw, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the committee's senior Democrat, announced a bipartisan compromise on gun-show legislation that appeared to bring them closer to Clinton's position. The pair co-signed a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, requesting a conference meeting as soon as possible.

Brokaw held the letter up to Clinton, stating that they had apparently reached a compromise, with Conyers agreeing to a 24-hour check. "Would you sign that bill?" he asked Clinton.

"Well, I want to see the details," Clinton replied, "but I almost certainly would sign anything that has the support of both Mr. Conyers and Mr. Hyde, and therefore got a majority of both our caucuses. Because we may never get a perfect bill.

"And so I don't know where they settled, I want to see the details," Clinton continued. "But if we could get a big bipartisan bill to come out of the House that would save people's lives, even if I thought it weren't perfect, of course I would sign it."

A year after the national wake-up call about violence at Columbine, many have bemoaned the fact that the country seems to have made very little progress on gun control. Clinton shifted tactics this week with a two-state initiative to use local gun-law drives to jump-start movement on the national level.

He appeared in Maryland on Tuesday to witness the governor sign a law requiring trigger locks. But Wednesday's events in Denver were the more visible and controversial, because of the Columbine connection.

Clinton attended a morning rally for SAFE Colorado, which is backing a ballot initiative to close the so-called gun-show loophole. Despite Owens' backing, the Republican-controlled legislature killed a similar measure earlier this year. A group of those Republican legislators held a press conference Tuesday to blame Clinton for the number of sales at gun shows. They argued that his stringent gun-licensing laws forced many sellers into using the shows.

While much of the morning rally was predictable -- including a few hundred protesters outside, and a heckler inside who briefly interrupted the president -- the staged event in the afternoon produced a few interesting exchanges. Brokaw hosted the one-hour town meeting at the University of Denver, where the president faced off with the locals, among whom resentment has built steadily during the past year over the question of who is most responsible for the tragedy.

The most emotional moment of the Colorado trip came at the very end of the town meeting, when a University of Denver student asked Clinton: "How many laws were broken last April 20 at Columbine, and why do you think one more will make a difference?"

Brokaw informed the president that the first answer was 18, and Clinton responded in part: "No one can be sure that anybody could have done anything in law enforcement to stop it. But the main thing is you shouldn't evaluate these proposals solely in terms of Columbine. What you should say is, would it make a difference. Why do I think one more will make a difference? Because if you close the gun-show loophole, then all gun sales will be subject to the same background checks the Brady Bill imposes on gun dealers today, which has resulted in a half-million felons, fugitives and stalkers not getting hand guns. And the gun crime rate today is 35 percent lower than it was seven years ago. That's my argument."

The issue of what would have helped at Columbine was a recurring theme, also surfacing in Clinton's confrontation with Doug Dean, majority leader of the Colorado House, which killed the measure the president was here to support. Asked why the legislature killed the gun-show measure when recent polls have shown that at least 80 percent of Coloradans support it, Dean responded, "We just didn't believe that it would have had any effect on the tragedy at Columbine."

But Clinton cited statements by Robin Anderson, who purchased one of the guns for the killers, indicating that "if she'd been subject to a background check she wouldn't have purchased the gun at the gun show."

Dean countered that Anderson would have passed the background check, but Clinton noted that it would have still served as a deterrent, because she said she wouldn't have attempted it. Dean finally said he didn't believe the statements of a young woman trying to get out of trouble.

Dave Cullen

Dave Cullen is a Denver writer working on a memoir, "In a Boy's Dream."

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Bill Clinton Crime Gun Control Guns