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Wednesday June 16 2:23 AM ET

Pro-Gun Democrat Leads Charge To Weaken Gun Bill

By Joanne Kenen

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With a pro-gun Democrat leading the charge and infuriating some of his colleagues, momentum was building in the House Tuesday to weaken a bill requiring background checks at gun shows this week.

Michigan Democrat John Dingell, the senior Democrat in the House of Representatives who remains a staunch defender of gun rights, said he had a ``goodly number'' of Democrats ready to join Republicans to vote for a watered down provisions for background checks on buyers at gun shows.

The gun and youth violence debate is extremely volatile, and the outcome is hard to predict, particularly with some 50 amendments likely to be considered Wednesday and Thursday.

The Senate switched positions several times before finally passing several new gun measures last month, and with numerous meetings, conferences and huddles going on, the pendulum could swing in the House yet again.

As of Tuesday, though, there was a growing feeling among both Republicans and Democrats that the Dingell initiative was gaining steam, and Dingell said he was confident it would pass. NRA spokesman Jim Manown confirmed the organization would support the Dingell approach. ``We do support it,'' he said.

Dingell's move could undermine a strategy of the Clinton administration and the Congressional Democratic leadership to tar Republicans as lackeys of the powerful National Rifle Association. But it underscores how vulnerable some lawmakers feel when in the NRA spotlight.

``This is a litmus test. You are with the NRA or you aren't with the NRA,'' said New York Democrat Carolyn McCarthy, who ran for Congress on a gun control platform after her husband was slain and her son injured by a crazed gunman on a Long Island commuter train. ``If they go against the NRA, they will be targeted.''

In the Rose Garden Tuesday, President Clinton again evoked the memory of the 15 deaths at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in an appeal to Congress. ``Once again, the gun lobby is resisting with all its might,'' Clinton said. ''Once again, we're battling not just for the safety of our families, but for the soundness of our democracy.''

Clinton also cited recent Justice Department statistics that found that the Brady gun control law has blocked over 400,000 illegal gun sales since it went into effect in 1994.

Dingell's proposal would require background checks for purchases at gun shows, but would give law enforcement only 24 hours to complete them.

The main House bill sponsored by Illinois Republican Henry Hyde would give 72 hours. Many Democrats and a smattering of Republican moderates hope to offer an amendment to prolong it to three business days, as in the Senate bill. The bills also differ on how they define a gun show.

Under current law, background checks are not mandatory for all transactions at those shows. Dingell said he believes 24 hours is adequate time to screen out unsuitable buyers, and said the system worked quickly and smoothly when he purchased ``a wonderful little shotgun'' in Maryland a few weeks ago.

Asked why he was taking the lead, despite the stance of his party leaders, Dingell told a small group of reporters, ``Nobody else is either willing or capable of doing so.''

Virginia Democrat James Moran, who supports stronger gun show legislation, accused Dingell of ``doing the bidding'' of the NRA. He estimated that about 60 Democrats would back Dingell, although other well-placed Democrats said it would probably be 40 to 50.

Republicans also detected more momentum for the Dingell approach, although they said the ultimate outcome was still in flux. And they said that having a Democrat of Dingell's stature made it easier for other Democrats and Republicans to join him without getting tarred as being too soft on guns.

``With Dingell, it will be easier,'' said Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican.

``People keep talking about the Republicans being in disarray about guns -- Look at the Democrats!,'' said Mark Foley, a Florida Republican.

Republican leaders were still working out the fine points of the debate rules, but they have said they plan to divide the youth violence bill into two parts.

One bill will focus on juvenile crime, gun enforcement and mandatory minimum prison terms for youth offenders. It will also address violence by Hollywood and the rest of the entertainment industry, focusing on how to protect teens from what bill sponsor Henry Hyde calls ``cultural pollution.''

Asked about the changing politics of the gun debate, House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas noted that it would be hard for Democrats to make gun control a campaign issue next year, if Democrats took the lead in passing weaker laws.

Armey said he wanted to see Dingell's final draft, but said ''it is not inconceivable'' that he will vote for it.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert has taken a neutral stance on gun control. He has called in general terms for closing legal loopholes, but has not yet endorsed a specific measure and has said he will not ``whip'' his party into a unified position.