This week, six years after the measure was proposed, the House of Representatives passed legislation imposing a mandatory five-day waiting period for the purchase of handguns - the so-called Brady bill named after James Brady, the White House press secretary who was shot and permanently disabled in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan.
Two years ago, when it last came to Congress, the proposal died in the Senate. This time the Senate is expected to approve it along with its own 'omnibus' five-year, anti- crime package, expected to ban handgun sales to minors and a variety of lethal semi- automatic assault weapons.
Ever since the off-year elections on 2 November, whose one clear message was a public yearning for safer streets, senators have been striving to outbid each other with their pet, headline-stealing proposals to get tough on criminals.
The foundation of the legislation is a doubling of the law-and-order budget to dollars 22bn ( pounds 15bn), most notably to pay for new federal prisons and an extra 100,000 policemen. Other proposals include a 'three strikes and you're out' provision imposing automatic life sentences on those convicted of a third violent crime, tighter appeals procedures, and calls for juveniles charged with major crimes to be treated as adults by the courts.
These and other measures will be voted upon next Tuesday. Despite much backstage manoeuvring by the anti-gun control lobby led by the National Rifle Association (NRA), a compromise has been reached, removing the threat of a filibuster by Republicans. Assuming the omnibus bill is approved later in the week, the Senate will hold a separate vote on the Brady bill soon afterwards.
Although the Brady bill will do nothing to reduce the 200 million guns already in circulation in the US, its passage is an important symbolic step.
The last attempt to curb the proliferation of guns was in 1968, when Congress banned the mail-order sale of rifles, shotguns and ammunition after the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Since then the number of handguns in private hands has more than quadrupled to 70 million in 1991.
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