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Gun Control's Final Exam

This week will determine whether the House follows the Senate's lead in closing gun-show loopholes, making it harder for children to obtain firearms and taking other limited, but reasonable, steps on gun control.

The issue, which splits members along regional and party lines, has already reached "demagoguery" on the decibel meter. President Clinton and Congress's Democratic leaders charge that the main GOP amendment to this juvenile-justice bill was ghostwritten by the National Rifle Association. For their part, the NRA and gun-control opponents misrepresent the Senate bill's effects.

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The draft penned by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois is weaker than the Senate measure, but it contains provisions - parental liability when children commit crimes with parents' guns and a 72-hour waiting period for gun-show background checks - that have the NRA seeing red. And none of the Senate bill's measures - including mandatory background checks at gun shows, locks on handguns, and a ban on importing high-capacity ammunition clips - runs afoul of Second Amendment rights.

The Senate bill passed only with Vice President Al Gore casting a tie-breaking vote. The House will have tougher going: While Senate minority leader Tom Daschle had all but one Democrat on board, his House counterpart, Richard Gephardt, has 30 to 40 anti-gun-control Democrats to contend with. On the GOP side, Speaker Dennis Hastert is juggling three or four different factions.

The danger for Republicans is that the House might pass nothing. That would leave them vulnerable to broadsides from the White House and Hill Democrats that will resonate with a public still sharply aware of the recent high-school shootings.

Further complicating the issue is a series of amendments on entertainment-industry practices. Disputes between liberals and conservatives could scuttle the overall bill, even if gun-control amendments pass.

Neither party's leadership is whipping the issue, which should leave each member free to vote his or her conscience. The best outcome would be adoption of the Senate package.

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