GOP Shoots Itself in the Foot Over Gun Control

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Faced with a relentless barrage of criticism from top Democrats, defections from some wavering Republicans and continuing outrage against guns from the public in the aftermath of the Littleton massacre, Senate Republican leaders staged an extraordinary retreat on Thursday. Following a blast from President Clinton saying there "was simply no excuse" for not passing a bill more closely controlling gun sales at gun shows, suddenly nervous Republicans scrambled to do just that. The latest maneuvering followed a set of mostly partisan votes late Wednesday in which the Senate had opted for a loose, Republican-backed voluntary background check for sales at gun shows instead of a mandatory one favored by Democrats.

"Senate Republican leaders finally realized they had handed the Democrats a choice issue," says TIME White House correspondent Jay Branegan. "They opted to play their base but they misread the current public mood." Ever since the Littleton massacre, the NRA and its allies in Congress have known that more gun control legislation was headed their way. The issue was how to deflect the effort without looking insensitive. "Republicans thought they could get some cover with their voluntary proposal," says TIME congressional correspondent John Dickerson, "but it didnt work." A big question now, says Dickerson, "is whether they will have managed to get on the right side of the issue" in time to avoid a serious political injury.