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Politics of guns: Even GOP now wants some controls

Littleton tragedy gives momentum to push for child safety locks and

The Columbine High School shootings appear to have profoundly affected the US politics of guns.

That's the implication of recent action in the Senate, where traditionally pro-gun Republicans have unexpectedly acquiesced to several control measures they have long opposed.

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Democrats remain suspicious that some of the GOP's moves - such as their about-face on background checks for gun shows - aren't quite what they seem to be on the surface.

But only a few weeks ago, even small gun-control measures seemed unlikely to win Senate approval. If nothing else, gun policy seems set to become a big issue in the next elections. Democrats, sensing a change in the public mood, will see to that.

"They are making a political issue of it," complains Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah.

In the latest GOP concession, the Republican leadership has agreed to support an amendment mandating the sale of child-safety locks with all new handguns sold. GOP lawmakers have traditionally opposed the rule.

That move comes on top of last week's sudden shift in position on background checks at gun shows. After initially voting down mandatory checks, GOP leaders reversed themselves and approved the checks on Friday.

On the gun show issue, many Democrats remain unmollified. They say that loopholes, such as a 24-hour limit on the checks, could render them ineffective.

For his part, Senator Hatch believes that to effect meaningful change Washington has to expand its focus beyond adding another layer of gun law. The culture the Colorado shootings occurred in, plus enforcement of existing laws, also needs to be addressed.

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"Twenty-two laws were violated in Littleton," none of which prevented the shootings, says the Utah Republican.

Other Republicans say many of the nearly 40 gun-control amendments Democrats have hoped to tack onto the juvenile-justice bill represent opportunistic policymaking at its worst. The White House and Senate Democrats are simply trying to take political advantage of a senseless tragedy, they feel.

"Up until last week, the president really hasn't helped us," says Hatch.

Despite angry charges from across the aisle, Democrats are savoring the changed environment and the potential for legislative and political gain.

The politically charged gun debate even has Republican presidential aspirants sounding like Democrats. Republican hopeful Elizabeth Dole is advocating a ban on assault weapons. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona was key in demanding his party reverse its position on background checks at gun shows.

Senate Democrats insist their efforts represent a common-sense response to a crisis, not an effort at political gain.

"If there is a fire in a house, don't you immediately run, whether it's a big fire or a small fire, and call the fire department?" asks Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey who pushed for background checks for firearm purchases at gun shows.

But gun advocates - including some that support limited gun restrictions - believe the current amendments aimed at background checks and waiting periods miss the point

Robert Ricker, president of the American Shooting Sports Council in Atlanta, was invited to last week's presidential roundtable examining the role guns, as well as cultural and societal forces, play in spawning youth violence.

The Littleton shootings may be the cause of gun control's new momentum, says Mr. Ricker. But the changes now in motion wouldn't address the problems the shootings revealed.

"[Democratic initiatives] are prompted by concern over children but the proposed changes are broad and the impact on children would be limited," he says.

While Ricker questions the logic of forging gun legislation in the wake of crisis, others point out that historically it's about the only time the gun code gets changed.

"Crisis rivets public opinion," points out Prof. Robert Spitzer, author of "The Politics of Gun Control" at the State University of New York at Cortland.

While the current gun debate in the Senate makes for high drama, it is unclear if the larger juvenile-justice bill will even make it to a final vote. The House, for instance, may not move a comparable bill.

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