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United States: Gun Control Looms As Issue In 2000 Presidential Campaign

Washington, D.C.; 21 June 1999 (RFE/RL) - Gun control is emerging as an issue in the budding 2000 U.S. presidential campaign.

Political battle lines are being drawn up between those who favor tougher federal laws -- many of whom are Democrats -- and those who think the root problem of gun violence in America lies elsewhere and are opposed to tightening these laws.

Democrats and Republicans traded criticism over the issue during the weekend. The latest verbal exchange comes after the Republican-controlled House of Representatives (lower chamber) voted Friday not to approve legislation that would further tighten laws governing firearms.

Speaking in Cologne, Germany, Democratic U.S. President Bill Clinton said the National Rifle Association (NRA) had lobbied hard to defeat a gun control measure his administration had pressed for.

In was the third time during his week-long European tour that Clinton denounced the NRA for working hard to defeat a proposal in the House for three-day background checks of buyers at gun shows.

In his weekly radio address Saturday, Clinton said the American people support tighter measures in the aftermath of the April 20 school shooting in Littleton, Colorado, and following earlier incidents in which school children opened gunfire at schools, killing and injuring students and teachers.

Clinton said: "But time and again, the gun lobby has used every weapon in its arsenal to defeat any effort to strengthen our gun laws, no matter how sensible."

The House first voted for a plan to require only 24 hours for background checks on people who buy weapons at gun shows. Clinton had favored three days, the time period the U.S. Senate approved last month by a 51-50 vote.

Then the House voted 147-280 to kill the bill outright. Liberals and moderates who regarded the 24-hour period as too weak voted against the measure, as did conservatives from the Western and Southern parts of the United States who do not want any new gun laws.

Clinton urged Congress not to allow "criminals to turn flea markets and parking lots into gun bazaars."

He said: "We can't allow the gun lobby to rewrite our laws and undermine our values. So today, again, I say to Congress: "'You've still got an opportunity -- and you've still got an obligation -- to do the right thing and pass real legislation that will strengthen our gun laws, not weaken them."

Clinton added: "Let us learn from the lessons of Littleton. Let us remember the children of Littleton, and indeed, the honour of all the children who lost their lives to gun violence in our country."

House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt said in a television interview Sunday (on ABC) that a large and growing number of fire arms are being sold at gun shows, where it is often easier to purchase weapons than at stores.

At the same TV program, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas said the Democrats are wrong and that violence in America has much deeper roots than selling guns.

DeLay said: "They (Democrats) don't want to address the root causes of what's going on in our culture. We (the Republicans) addressed spirituality and faith. They said 'no.' We addressed getting tough on thugs and murderers and rapists. They said 'no.' We addressed putting people away, behind bars. They said 'no.' We addressed the garbage (violence) that Hollywood and video games are using to poison our children. They said 'no.'"

Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA, said the House's refusal to tighten gun control laws represents a victory for freedom.

LaPierre said: "Ultimately, it's (the debate) going to go on to the 2000 election, the most important election in the history of this country."

Vice President Al Gore, who last week formally began his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, asked when Congress will "wake up and respond to what the American people want?"

Texas Governor George Bush, who pollsters say is the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, is taking a different stand.

A statement issued by his office said: "Governor Bush does not believe the manufacturer of a legal product (guns) should be held responsible for the criminal misuse of that product."

Gun control has long been a hotly debated issue in American politics. The U.S. Constitution speaks of a right to bear arms in America. Some interpret this as a right of citizens to purchase and possess arms; others see it as a right primarily afforded to an organized militia.

Although gun control advocates have gained some ground since the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King 31 years ago, the NRA is considered to be the most powerful lobbying group in the United States.