Clinton battles for gun controls

JUST WEEKS ago it seemed the United States might be prodded into action on guns by the horrific killings of pupils at Columbine High School. But last night the tremendous forces of special interests were manoeuvring in Congress to crush any significant response.

Guns and violence are emerging as a significant issue on the campaign trail as politicians start to prepare for next year's elections.

But there is no political consensus on how to respond, and the power of lobby groups is gradually stifling action.

The House of Representatives was last night locked in a bitter debate on gun control, with a plan to clamp down on purchases of firearms at gun shows under discussion.

Democrats had wanted to use the outrage generated by the killing of 15 people at Columbine, in Colorado, to push for gun control.

The issue triggered a wave of anguish across America, but anguish that has failed to create a consensus around limiting access to guns.

The Senate passed a Bill that would have put some limits on guns, but the House - where right-wing Republicans have more influence, and the Democrats are less united - is stumbling as it confronts the same measures.

The National Rifle Association stumbled after Columbine, but is now regrouping. It is influential in the Republican party, and a group of Democrats is also resisting action.

President Bill Clinton lobbied furiously for the Bill even as he flew to Europe, for the measure urging a three-day waiting period instead of the 24-hour period favoured by the gun lobby. "He said that he knows it's a tough vote but that we have to remember that this is all about keeping guns out of the hands of children and criminals," a White House spokesman told reporters in Paris. He woke at 5am to make the calls.

But the measure looked to be in trouble. In any case, it dealt only with gun shows, imposing a period for background checks, closing a loophole in existing legislation.

Republicans blame the media for the shift in culture which has made teenagers willing to gun down their fellow pupils in school shootings.

But a proposal to ban sales of explicitly violent films, video games, pictures and books to teenagers came under heavy fire from supporters of free speech and the entertainment industry alike, and fell by the wayside on Wednesday night. "Of course we worked it hard," said Jack Valenti, a lobbyist for the film industry.

"This isn't cigarettes or alcohol. This is creative work that is protected by the First Amendment."

A spread of other amendments to the legislation were also under consideration, aimed at stopping school shootings by putting the Ten Commandments on classroom walls, for instance. The House did agree to toughen prison sentences for youth offenders and classify teenagers as young as 13 as adults, a popular idea on the right, where prison is increasingly the answer to every problem.