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Guns and Poses

Frenzied politicians do the Littleton shuffle


It might not be as entertaining to Americans as violent programming on TV and the movies, but the newly reloaded issue of gun control is good political theater.

In the past two weeks, the U.S. Senate twisted itself through amazing contortions as Littleton-inspired politicians of both parties played to their galleries in an attempt to be seen "doing something" about youth participation in the nation's violent streak. At one point or another, there were no less than 75 amendments introduced by the 100 members of the Senate on one gun-control bill.

When the smoke cleared, the Senate narrowly conveyed to the House a baby-step measure requiring background checks at gun shows -- breathlessly enacted with a vice-presidential tie-breaking vote -- that reversed an earlier GOP effort to do absolutely nothing on the subject. In the end, a good political time was had by all.

The Democrats could congratulate themselves openly for a gun-control bill that doesn't control guns. The Republicans could congratulate themselves privately for having fought a battle for their NRA benefactors without winning a war that would have all but certainly caused them to get shot full of holes in the next election.

To underscore the last point, the "final" vote on the gun-show measure was 73-25, with senators like Missouri's John Ashcroft and Kit Bond officially voting in favor of the bill they tried so hard to kill. Both senators had first helped kill a Democratic amendment on May 12 to apply the Brady Bill (three-to-five-day waiting periods) to gun shows, and two days later were part of a "successful" GOP measure to enact a meaningless 24-hour-or-less check.

After a public firestorm sent the Republicans scurrying like unarmed patriots facing Soviet tanks on Pennsylvania Avenue, Ashcroft and Bond last Friday cast one more pro-NRA vote, the one that fell just short of killing a three-day waiting period for gun-show purchases.

But they can hardly be faulted for disloyalty: The two senators were among the 31 members (all Republicans) who received more than $10,000 pro-gun campaign dollars in their last election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

All 31 joined in the initial effort to kill the Brady Bill standard for gun shows.

Now the drama, such as it is, shifts to the House, where politicians like Rep. Jim Talent (R-2nd District) will be given their own opportunity to do the Littleton shuffle. Talent will be playing a rather difficult dual role: Sparky GOP congressional loyalist on the one hand, trembling GOP candidate for Missouri governor on the other.

You may recall Talent's last close encounter with gun control. First, he was an enthusiastic backer of Proposition B's concealed guns. Then, when the measure was defeated (in no small part thanks to his own St. Louis County constituents), Talent decided that, if elected governor, he would indeed veto the measure he had just backed enthusiastically.

We can only hope that his upcoming performance on the gun-show issue is just as compelling. First he should oppose any restrictions on gun shows as the Commie intrusions they are. Then he should get in his fair share of bipartisan preening and posturing, hammering out some sort of compromise with the greatest of statesmanship, and then he should return home and announce that as governor he would veto anything resembling the measure just passed by Congress.

To drive the point home, Talent might do well to demand an end to all gun shows in Frontenac and then proceed to a rally at a gun shop outstate, where he "might buy me one of them .22s just in case I gotta campaign in the city of St. Louis, if you know what I mean."

This gun-control thing is not an easy business for politicians. Proposition B either created or exposed a chasm between outstate residents and those in the state's metropolitan areas, which will likely color the 2000 elections.

Talent is a staunch conservative from the part of the state that said no to concealed guns. His likely opponent, Treasurer Bob Holden, is a moderate Democrat, favoring gun control, from the part of the state that overwhelmingly said yes to packing heat.

At the moment, there's a bit of a standoff, and it is far too early to predict how the volatile gun issue will play out 18 months from now. But thanks in part to Proposition B, and now to the Littleton tragedy (and other incidents of school violence), guns seem poised to eclipse abortion as Missouri's ultimate hot-button issue.

The NRA is certainly up to its holsters in alligators -- from a public weary of its extremist arguments and from the prospect of facing lawsuits like the ones that forced tobacco to buck up -- but it still is a formidable political force, especially in conservative country like Missouri. It is not to be underestimated.

Neither, however, is this: Americans are beginning to realize that the "strategy" of having more than 200 million firearms out there isn't doing a great deal to inhibit gun violence. Nor is the culture becoming safer through the proliferation of assault weaponry, handguns and all sorts of other weaponry unrelated to hunting or legitimate self-defense.

This could be a time to begin reducing the nation's private arsenals -- a total handgun ban, hinted at last week by Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Bradley, would be a good place to start -- and not merely in response to Littleton or other tragedies. We just don't need all these guns.

Yet for all the momentum that seems to be out there, consider this: Even in the wake of Littleton, with public outrage quite palpable, the Senate was barely able to pass the most minimal new restrictions on gun-show activity. The newscasts and headlines are creating an impression of a wave of control. The cameras are rolling.

But, for now at least, the politicians are merely posing.

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