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Washington Journal: Clinton Proposes Tougher Gun Laws

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 29 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As family and friends continued burying the victims of last week's school shooting in Littleton, Colorado, U.S. President Bill Clinton unveiled a series of sweeping new laws designed to restrict the sale of guns and explosives in America.

Clinton's proposals include raising the legal age for handgun and semiautomatic assault weapons possession from 18 to 21; banning the import of high-capacity automatic weapon clips; requiring safety locks to be sold with all guns; extending background checks on those wishing to purchase explosives and certain kinds of explosive materials; and limiting the purchase of handguns to one per month.

The legislation, proposed Tuesday, also includes a provision that would hold adults responsible when their guns are used by children in acts resulting in death or injury -- as long as it could be proven that the adults had knowingly or recklessly allowed a child access to firearms. The proposal states that the penalty could be as high as three years in prison, a fine of $250,000, or both.

Clinton said all Americans were deeply shaken by the tragedy in Colorado where two teenagers set off homemade bombs and killed 12 students and a teacher at their school before turning the guns on themselves. Enough is enough, Clinton said, urging Americans to support his gun control measures.

He said: "I think this, in the end, is going to come down to what our conception of America as a community is, and what our responsibilities to one another are."

Clinton said he understands America's fascination with guns -- especially those people who shoot for sport, such as hunters. He acknowledged he had first fired a shotgun at a can on a fencepost near his home in rural Arkansas at age 12. But he asked Americans to at least support some reasonable restrictions on guns.

"I want to make a plea to everybody who is waiting for the next deer season in my home state to think about this in terms of what our reasonable obligations are to the larger community of America are."

Statistics seem to point to a need to do something about violence in American schools. According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, there were 173 violent deaths in U.S. schools between 1994 and 1998. Fifty percent of American children ages nine to 17 are worried about dying young, and 31 percent of students ages 12 to 17 know someone their age who carries a gun.

But Clinton faces an uphill battle with his proposals, not only in the U.S. Congress where some political observers are already forecasting trouble, but among the American people as well.

During the unveiling of the gun control proposals, Clinton acknowledged it would take a big shift in public opinion for his package to be enacted by Congress.

Guns have long played a prominent role in American history, politics and culture. They were a critical part of America's struggle against Britain during the Revolutionary War -- so important that the right to bear arms is guaranteed in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, just after freedom of speech, press and the right to assembly.

Michael Kazin, a professor of U.S. history at American University in Washington told RFE/RL that guns are considered culturally and historically a "birthright" (privilege) of all Americans.

He says this mentality formed largely as a result of America's development as a "frontier society," meaning most of the land was untamed and had to be settled by pioneers and frontiersmen. He said guns were needed for survival -- not only for personal protection, but to eat.

As a result, just about everyone in early America owned a gun, says Kazin, regardless of age, status or wealth. Children were taught how to use a gun at an early age. This, of course, was a big change from Europe where guns were tightly controlled by the wealthy or law enforcement, he says.

"Therefore, the use of guns, and the familiarity with guns, is built into American culture, and has always been built into American culture in a way that it has not been built into the culture of, say, European countries."

Kazin also says the right to bear arms became a fiercely guarded constitutional right during America's fight for independence from Britain. The right to bear arms was seen as a way for ordinary citizens to fight back against an oppressive government, he says. He adds that this mentality still remains today among many Americans who completely oppose any kind of gun control measures.

Alan Gottlieb, the founder of the Citizen's Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, is one of those citizens who think Clinton's new gun control package is unfair and unconstitutional.

Gottlieb says: "The total package is a legislative lynching of gun owners, trying to shift the blame to gun owners who had nothing to do with the situation in Colorado."

Gottlieb told RFE/RL that he is confident members of the U.S. Congress will "stay on track" by continuing to focus on what is really causing all the problems of violence in America -- the criminals. He says this approach is a far better way to reduce gun crime than by "scapegoating and penalizing" law-abiding gun owners. He predicts that Clinton's proposals will "go nowhere" in the U.S. Congress.

He may be right. Many members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat, are openly backed by the powerful and well-organized gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association (NRA). In fact, just minutes after President Clinton unveiled his proposals, there already were clear signs of conflict.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) urged Congress against issuing stronger gun control laws in the face of the school shootings in Colorado.

Lott told reporters: "I have asked that we have a brief period of mourning where we don't rush to judgement before we start flinging amendments at each other -- that we think about it."

Other lawmakers were issuing proposals of their own -- most of which had nothing to do with gun control. Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho) suggested random searches of lockers, a dress code and stricter discipline in schools.

Two other congressmen took the American entertainment industry to task, asking Hollywood to refrain from making violent movies, and asking the U.S. Surgeon General to conduct a study on the impact of the media on violent behavior in children.

Even Congressman Tom DeLay (R-Texas), whose office was attacked last year by a gunman who killed two policeman in the U.S. Capitol and injured others, said "when politicians use tragedies to advance their political causes, it only makes bad situations worse."

But America's First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton said on Tuesday it would be wrong to think that banning violent movies and video games, or putting children in school uniforms, or adding more armed guards at schools, would solve the problem of gun violence among America's youth. She said some restrictions regarding guns and children were clearly needed.

Mrs. Clinton said it is simply "criminal how easy it is for children in America to obtain guns." She added that last year alone, 6,000 American students were expelled for bringing guns to school. The tragedy at Littleton, she said, is the latest example of how the availability of guns can turn a sense of alienation and rage into a deadly encounter.

Mrs. Clinton explained: "Every day in America we lose 13 precious children to gun-related violence. Every 2 days, therefore, we lose the equivalent of a classroom of students. Guns and children are two words that should never be put together in the same sentence."