Senate approves gun controls - just

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The Independent Online
AN ILL WIND marked the first month since the Columbine slaughter with a new school shooting in Georgia, but it blew some good towards Senate Democrats, speeding tougher firearms regulations past Republican objections and towards the statute book.

It also gave Vice-President Al Gore the starring role in one of Washington's best pieces of political theatre since the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton.

After eight straight days of impassioned debate in the Senate, the Vice- President used his casting vote to ensure the passage of a hotly contested amendment and close a well-known loophole in federal gun controls. The measure, which extends mandatory background checks to anyone who buys a handgun at a gun show, whether from a licensed dealer or not, had been bitterly resisted by Republicans who viewed it as the introduction by stealth of compulsory registration of gun ownership.

Without the additional spur of yesterday's school shooting, it could have been defeated.

Mr Gore, a former senator and congressional veteran, has rarely used his vice- presidential prerogative to preside over the Senate, but he arrived at the Chamber yesterday morning to take the chair - interrupting a wedding anniversary retreat with his wife, Tipper, to do so - after the White House apparently anticipated the closeness of the vote.

What happened on the second and final vote of the Democrats' gun control package provided a moment of high drama - and exceptionally deft political management.

After announcing that the vote was tied, Mr Gore said: "The Vice-President votes in the affirmative," and banged down his gavel. With his presidential campaign off to a slow start, the occasion provided Mr Gore with a compelling clip for his presidential campaign video - and for yesterday's news broadcasts. It also gave him an opportunity to present himself - as he did at a press conference after the vote - as a champion of gun control, which has become an early campaign issue. "I personally would like to dedicate my tie-breaking vote to all of the families that have suffered from gun violence," he said.

The gun show amendment was the last in a package of amendments to an existing juvenile crime bill, which include the mandatory provision of safety locks on all new handguns and applies personal background checks also to individuals buying or redeeming firearms at pawn shops. Such checks are already required for anyone buying a gun at a licensed gun shop.

One effect of the school shootings in Colorado, where two teenagers were able to amass a veritable arsenal, had been to put the powerful US gun lobby on the defensive and galvanise Congressional Democrats to push for stricter firearms regulation.

The Democrats' success - in the teeth of ferocious opposition from southern and rural Republicans - was hailed by their supporters as evidence of a historic shift in American public opinion on firearms.

That view was reinforced by the decision of the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert, last week to consider a bill that would raise the minimum age for buying a handgun from 18 to 21.

Yesterday's victory for the Democrats, however, was by no means a foregone conclusion. In more than a week of fractious debate, the balance of advantage had swung to and fro by the hour and President Clinton had used his White House pulpit first to shame, then to scold and then to commend the Senate for its action. There is now a 90-day period before the new controls come into force.