Republicans recoil from embrace of gun lobby: Passage of Brady bill signals decline of the National Rifle Association

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The Independent Online
THE Senator most relieved to hear that the chamber had agreed at the last minute to pass the Brady bill on handgun control was one who had already started his holiday in the Solomon Islands, in the South Pacific. If agreement had not been reached, the Senator and his colleagues, who had not expected to see each other again until 25 January, would have found themselves back on the floor of a reconvened Senate next week.

It was the Republicans who finally gave ground. At the weekend their filibuster of the Brady bill, introducing a five- day waiting period for handgun purchases to allow background checks, was abandoned because they feared being pilloried as creatures of the gun lobby. Reconvening the Senate, as well as ruining holiday plans, would have subjected the Republicans to another damaging week of publicity on gun control.

The agreement calls for the Brady bill to be passed as it is. In January the Senate Republican leader, Robert Dole, is to introduce amendments to the measure. These will be minor, phasing the waiting period out after four years rather than five, when a computer allowing instant checks on gun buyers is up and running.

The Brady bill - named after President Reagan's press secretary, James Brady, who was shot in the head in 1981 - will be the most radical gun- control measure yet passed by the US Congress. Its passage is also good news for President Bill Clinton, who has strongly supported it. It is a setback for the National Rifle Association, which has traditionally supported Republicans but whose support is becoming more of a political liability. Mr Dole did not want to be seen as killing the bill but, as a contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996, he also did not want to alienate conservative Republican senators opposed to gun control.

The Democrats may exaggerate the popularity of gun control. Governor Jim Florio of New Jersey made his ban on assault rifles a centrepiece of his campaign earlier this month and still lost. But the final passage of the Brady bill, after failing every year since 1986, shows that the NRA, with 3.2 million members and an annual budget of dollars 100m ( pounds 68m), is not the power it used to be in Washington.

Up to the last minute the gun lobby nibbled at the effectiveness of the new legislation, almost sliding into it two amendments which would have sabotaged its aims. One would have shifted the definition of an antique gun, which can be sold without restriction, to anything made before 1919. This sounded uncontroversial until it was pointed out that a criminal would be freely able to buy one of several million guns in working order dating from the First World War.

A second amendment would have allowed gun dealers, of whom there are 286,000 in the US, to sell guns in neighbouring states without having a licence there. Given that a dog was once given a gun-dealer's licence, current regulations are hardly draconian, but the NRA-inspired amendment would have made it even more difficult to police gun sales.

The importance of the Brady bill is largely symbolic, because its passage shows a change in the political balance of power in favour of control. The last time any measure was passed by Congress, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, was in 1968. Even then it simply made it more difficult to order a rifle by post. Other legislation was passed in the 1930s against sawn-off shotguns and silencers.

But the gun-control lobby does not have all the arguments. Federal law on guns may be slack but there are tough restrictions in more than 20 states. A felon using a gun does face stiff penalties: in Washington DC, police say drug dealers often do not keep their guns on them, because they might be sentenced for carrying a concealed weapon. With 200 million firearms already available, nobody expects the Brady bill to have an effect soon.

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