At last. The Brady Bill, the anemic gun-control measure that would require a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases, is chugging its way through Congress. After House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jack Brooks released the hostage bill just before Halloween, all signs pointed toward speedy passage. It has only taken six years.
In gun-control circles, the long-thwarted bill is beginning to look like the little engine that could. The question now is this: How much additional gun-control policy can the wheezing little engine pull along behind it? Anyone who tends toward overoptimism might want to consider recent events in Texas and Arkansas, where gubernatorial vetoes were required to halt NRA-backed legislation allowing loaded and concealed weapons to be carried in public. (That's right, the legislators thought citizens would feel more secure knowing all those rowdies arguing at the end of the bar were packing heat.)
But despite the enduring pathology of gun worship, it's clear to everyone – even the NRA – that the political ground is shifting in the most gun-glutted nation on earth. New Jersey, Connecticut, Minnesota and Virginia all enacted gun-control legislation this year. Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, a Republican with White House ambitions and a former gun-control opponent, took a look at opinion polls and was born again. He is now proposing a sweeping package to ban handgun sales to anyone under 21; restrict handgun purchases to one per month; bar anyone convicted of violating a domestic restraining order from ever obtaining a firearm license; enact a statewide Brady-like waiting period; and ban military-style assault weapons.
Even this stunning turnaround in liberal Massachusetts pales before the seismic quakes in Colorado and Utah. After Colorado Gov. Roy Romer proved it could be done in the Wild West, Utah followed his lead and banned gun sales to minors. True, that's a pathetically small step, but it's a step that was wholly inconceivable in those states just two years ago.
HOW, THEN, DOES A socially conscious yuppie couple living in homicide-choked Washington approach the new political climate? Cautiously. The Clintons are not about to endorse Rhode Island Sen. John Chafee's bill to ban handguns, nor are they ready to back New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's provocative idea to ban ammunition (both the supply and life span of which are far more limited than that of the 60 million or 70 million handguns in circulation). But at least the administration is not idly waiting for state governments to change the world.
Early this fall, even before the Brady bill escaped Jack Brooks' clutches, the White House launched an Interdepartmental Work Group on Violence Prevention. The group is divided into a half-dozen subgroups focusing on topics such as youth violence and family violence. One of the subgroups, co-chaired by Eleanor Acheson, assistant attorney general for office of policy development, and Mark Rosenberg, a doctor at the Centers for Disease Control, in Atlanta, is simply titled Firearms.
"The Firearms group is a combination of CDC and Justice," says Peter Edelman, who is counselor to Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala and co-chair of the entire work group (as well as a close friend of the Clintons'). "We really haven't had that kind of synergism between law enforcement and public health before. We can look at guns as a public-health problem. We want to make that point."
The work group, whose other co-chair is the deputy attorney general, Philip Heymann, is scheduled to present an array of policy options and suggestions for shaping public debate on violence to White House domestic-policy head Carol Rasco in late December or early January. Members of the work group come from more than a handful of federal departments and have been soliciting advice from experts outside the government as well. It's an open-ended assignment, with the parameters defined, Edelman says, only by "reality." Political reality? Of course. "But there's also the reality of people dying in the streets from guns," he adds.
Firearms co-chair Rosenberg says the group is looking to develop strategies to "reframe the debate" on guns. "We're trying to get away from this notion of gun control," Rosenberg says. He envisions a long-term campaign, similar to those on tobacco use and auto safety, to convince Americans that guns are, first and foremost, a public-health menace. "We didn't have to ban cars," he says. "We made cars safer. We made roads safer. We reduced drunk driving. It's the greatest success story in public health of the last 25 years."
While the language of public health is certainly applicable – few things are less healthy than a bullet – the NRA won't fail to note that the measures required to improve this particular problem all revert to gun control of one sort or another. Rosenberg is clearly concerned with more than teenage gangsters wild in the streets. "Having a gun in a home is a very dangerous thing," he says, citing a study indicating that a gun in the home is 43 times more likely to be used in a family suicide or homicide than to kill an intruder.
A pioneer in a field that the CDC – in perfect bureaucratic pitch – used to call "intentional injuries," Rosenberg lists four main categories where regulatory intervention might be possible:
Regulate who has guns. This is gun control at its purest, encompassing proposals such as a ban on sales to minors and increased licensing requirements for gun dealers as well as buyers.
Regulate the lethality of guns. This would primarily address gun manufacturers, imposing controls, for example, on barrel length and gun caliber and restricting certain types of ammunition. Technological advances may come into play here as well. Rosenberg cites the possibility of manufacturing a gun trigger with sensors that recognize and respond to only one hand. (The owner's hand would probably have to be implanted with a chip.) Such technology might be particularly useful to police officers. According to one study, in nearly one-quarter of police homicides, the officer was killed with his or her own gun.
Regulate how guns are carried or stored. This might be as simple as increasing penalties for carrying a concealed weapon or as difficult as regulating how guns are stored in the home.
Limit the number of guns. Again, gun control at its purest, based on the premise that since guns are a certified threat to public health, they should not be easy to buy.
Even the mere mention of such ideas from quasi-official lips is guaranteed to drive the gun nuts into a frenzy. It's said that talk is cheap. But when talk is unprecedented, as White House support for even a fraction of this agenda would be, its value rises considerably.
"There's some significant change going on out in the country," says Peter Edelman. "The question is, What's the edge of the envelope? The answer is, I don't completely know." The main question in Washington, of course, is how much political capital the White House will stake on what historically has been a losing battle against the landslide of guns.
"The president feels very, very strongly about guns," Edelman says. "You can see it in the strength of the feeling he has when he talks about it." Speaking recently in Baltimore, the president said, "Every time another kid takes another assault weapon onto another dark street and commits another random drive-by shooting and sends another child to the Johns Hopkins emergency room, that adds to the cost of health care."
In testifying about health care before Congress this fall, Hillary Rodham Clinton gave a verbal nod to Chicago Rep. Mel Reynolds' public-health initiative to tax the bejesus out of guns. But the White House chose not to include the measure in its health-care package. "The political will hasn't really been tested," Rosenberg acknowledges.
Campaigning in New Jersey with Gov. Jim Florio in October, Hillary Clinton said, "We've got the gun lobby and the NRA on the run." We'll soon see how ardently the White House gives chase.