Thou Shalt Not Pass Gun-Control Measures

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With the stunning victory early Friday morning for an NRA-backed gun-control measure, the Republican strategy of splitting culture issues from gun issues in the debate on youth violence -- including the introduction of a bill allowing the posting of the Ten Commandments in schools -- appears to have succeeded in dampening the Democratic thrust over firearms. "Republican leaders are succeeding in having a conversation for two days about our culture and God, which is what the GOP wants to talk about," says TIME congressional correspondent John Dickerson.

Never mind that the party’s initial assault failed miserably in the vote count -- a 282-to-146 defeat, with 92 Republican defections -- for Henry Hyde’s proposal making it a crime to expose children to movies, books or videos containing explicit sex or violence. The measure fell in the face of First Amendment objections, a lack of leadership support (because it didn’t square with the party’s stance on limited government), and, reports Dickerson, "because of lobbying not just by the entertainment industry but by retailers and the chamber of commerce." A second GOP thrust on Thursday succeeded, however, this time on a measure allowing the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools. The vote was 248 to 180. (Notwithstanding that the Supreme Court has previously held such displays to be unconstitutional).

Then came the crucial vote on background checks for firearms bought at gun shows. As Democratic leaders scurried to keep their membership in line for the gun control vote -- a number of Democrats come from districts with strong gun-rights sentiment -- President Clinton, who is in Europe, spent time on the phone lobbying members of his party. It wasn't enough -- and the NRA proved that it is still a force to be reckoned with in Washington. Many of the 45 Democrats who voted in favor of the toned-down bill probably remember how the NRA’s successful targeting of Democratic Representatives who voted to pass the Brady and other gun control laws contributed to the GOP congressional victory of 1994.