US bites bullet on gun control: Revival of the 'Brady Bill' reflects changing mood

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The Independent Online
KEN BARGER accidentally shot himself dead in Newton, North Carolina, when he was awoken by the telephone ringing on his bedside table. Reaching for the phone he grabbed by mistake a Smith & Wesson .38, which discharged when he drew it to his ear.

Yoshihiro Hattori went to the wrong house for a Hallowe'en party in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The frightened home-owner, Robert Peairs, mistaking the Japanese student's camera for a gun, shouted 'freeze'; when Hattori failed to understand, shot him dead with a .44 Magnum.

It is incidents like these that finally created enough public alarm to break the Republican filibuster on the Brady Bill - imposing a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases - in the Senate on Saturday night.

Although the Bill's impact on a country where 200 million guns are already available may be limited it is still the most radical piece of gun-control legislation ever passed by the US Congress.

'A number of things are galvanising the attention of Americans, starting with the killing of foreign tourists in Florida,' said President Bill Clinton. The last-minute revival of the Brady Bill, named after James Brady, President Reagan's press secretary who was shot in the head with a handgun during the 1981 assassination attempt on Mr Reagan, is evidence he is right.

The Republican leadership, for whom a tough-on-crime image is essential, did not want to be labelled as uncompromising opponents of gun control. As a result, the first piece of serious gun control legislation since 1968 was passed. It gives time for a background check on a handgun purchaser who walks into any of America's 286,000 gun dealers - who themselves may soon be subject to tighter regulation.

Earlier in the week the Senate also voted for an amendment to the Crime Bill which bans the production and sale of 19 types of semi-automatic assault weapons.

The Attorney-General, Janet Reno, believes 'America's love affair with guns is coming to an end' but this is premature. Just as the Senate was banning weapons such the AK-47, Uzi and 'streetsweeper' shotgun, it reassured hunters and gun owners by exempting more than 650 types of weapon by name from any ban.

The Crime Bill is not, in any case, primarily about gun control, although it has draconian provisions for anybody using a gun in a crime. For instance, carrying a gun during the commission of a crime will carry a mandatory federal sentence of 10 years, rising to 20 years if the gun is fired, and the death penalty if somebody is killed.

Senators, sensing that voters want to hear tough talk on crime, have added bloodthirsty amendments to the Bill, including the death penalty for big-time drug traders who have not killed anybody.

As well as the death penalty for 51 new crimes, the Bill provides funds for 100,000 more police officers, dollars 6bn for new prisons and allows 13-year-olds to be prosecuted as adults. Some of these provisions will be watered down by the House of Representatives and the final Bill will probably not emerge until next year.

Will the Crime Bill have any effect on crime? It is hard to say. Mandatory sentences for drug offenders have already clogged up the judicial system. Between 1980 and 1990 the number of drug offenders in federal prisons rose from 22 per cent to 60 per cent. The killers of tourists in Florida invariably had long records of violence, but the local police and judiciary were too overburdened with drug offenders to deal with them.