Gun Control Puts House GOP on the Defensive

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The congressional struggle over gun control, which has moved to the House of Representatives after a battle royal in the Senate, has taken a curious and controversial turn. The Republican leadership has decided to separate the various gun control measures that are now circulating in the chamber from the wider juvenile justice bill. Democratic leaders have come out swinging, accusing the GOP of splitting off the gun measures in order to kill them in isolation. But, says TIME congressional correspondent John Dickerson, the move is "an attempt not to botch the gun and juvenile crime issues in the House the way the Senate did." When the Senate took up its version of a juvenile justice bill last month, Republicans were blindsided into accepting a rapid-fire series of Democratic gun control amendments in order to pass the strict juvenile-crime legislation they wanted.

"The Republican decision represents a relatively smart move for the party," says Dickerson. As in the Senate, the House Republican leadership faces a rank and file that strongly opposes gun control but at the same time strongly supports a crackdown on juvenile offenders and entertainment violence. "Splitting the legislation in two for separate votes is an attempt to get cover," says Dickerson. It allows gun control to sink or swim on its own while allowing Republicans to address the culture issues that concern them and their constituents. The split also gives the GOP an opportunity to defang Democratic accusations that Republicans are pro-gun absolutists: The several gun control measures that will be up for separate votes all have some Republican sponsors. And with Republicans holding only a six-vote margin, no one -- not even the President, who on Tuesday again publicly pressed the House to get tough on guns -- is betting on the outcome on any of the measures.