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Killings stoking debate on guns

As widely publicized shootings continue around the country, calls for controls grow louder.

Shortly after 15 people were killed in April by two gun-toting students at Columbine High School in Colorado, Janice Schomburg called Pinellas County school administrators with a question.

"I am concerned, I am a parent, I am a volunteer and I want to know, what are we doing in Pinellas County?" the Palm Harbor resident recounted last week.

Schomburg wound up on a task force with school officials, law enforcement officers and other parents that recommended computerized identification badges and more than three dozen other measures aimed at protecting students from shootings and other violence.

But as Pinellas and other school districts around Tampa Bay and the nation worked on safety precautions, shootings continued to make headlines and play out live on CNN.

A month after the Columbine shootings, six teens were wounded at a high school in Georgia.

Last week, three children and two adults were wounded at a Jewish community center in Los Angeles by a gunman who later killed a postal worker, authorities say. The week before, three were killed in an office shooting in Alabama. The week before that, a disgruntled investor killed nine and wounded 13 in Atlanta.

Now guns are the focal point of a national debate that touches every level of government and politics, from school advisory panels like the one Schomburg served on to the White House. They also are a point of political impasse, with Congress and the Florida Legislature divided over the need for more gun laws. The National Rifle Association remains a powerful force in Washington and Tallahassee, and the Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms.

Despite the legislative gridlock, pressure is building for change.

After the Los Angeles community center shootings, President Clinton once again urged Congress to approve modest new gun controls. Three candidates for president _ Vice President Al Gore and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley for the Democrats, Elizabeth Dole for the Republicans _ have called for even tighter gun restrictions. And more than two dozen local governments, including Miami-Dade County in Florida, have filed lawsuits against gun manufacturers.

For all the posturing, few new gun controls have been enacted into law.

In California, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis last month signed into law the nation's toughest ban on assault weapons and a limit on handgun purchases to one per month. But in Florida, Republican Gov. Jeb Bush and other state officials are focusing on tougher penalties for students found with guns and more money for school safety rather than new gun control.

And across the country, school administrators and parents like Schomburg are wrestling with how to keep students safe as they return to classes.

"Do you have children?" asked Schomburg, the mother of two sons. "It's hard to send them out in the morning."

Concern because of schools

Even as Clinton called on Congress to require background checks of buyers at gun shows and other restrictions, he noted overall crime is at a 26-year low. The number of students expelled for bringing guns to school also has dropped nationwide.

But federal and state officials say continuous media coverage of shootings, particularly those played out in schools, overshadows the more encouraging statistics and fuels the debate over guns and safety. Before Columbine High, students were killed or wounded during the 1997-98 school year in Pearl, Miss.; West Paducah, Ky.; Edinboro, Pa.; Jonesboro, Ark.; and Springfield, Ore.

"If it was not your kid and your back yard, life went on," Florida Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher said of the days before shootings were reported live on television. "Now the way the media is, you can tune in to anything anywhere. You're one step away from being there with continuous coverage. Now it's in people's minds: "Gee, I don't want that to happen, and I want to blame it on somebody or something.' So you see people saying if you didn't have guns, this wouldn't happen. Well, we're going to have guns with the Second Amendment."

Guns are not a new political issue.

Congress enacted some restrictions on sawed-off shotguns and machine guns in 1934 in the wake of Prohibition-era violence and the February 1933 assassination attempt on President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt in Miami, which killed the mayor of Chicago. A ban on mail-order gun sales and other controls were approved after the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy in 1968.

In 1993, a federal waiting period on handgun sales was approved and named after James Brady, the White House press secretary wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. That waiting period was replaced last year by an instant, computerized background check on buyers of all types of guns (although the background check can still take up to three days in some cases).

In Florida, voters have twice supported new gun controls. They overwhelmingly voted for a three-day waiting period for handgun buyers in 1990. Last year, they voted to enable counties to close a loophole on sales at gun shows.

The tenor of the national debate has been altered by the school shootings, said David C. King, associate professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Now many gun opponents are as determined as gun supporters.

"What's changed is the coupling of gun control with education," King said. "The traditional problem for the opponents of guns is that not many people on their side care about the issue all that much. People say they care about gun control, but it's No. 3 or 5 or 7 on their list. But by linking it to schools, it bumps way up."

Recent opinion polls support King's theory.

More than six of every 10 voters say gun control will be extremely important or very important when they vote in congressional elections next year, according to a CNN-Gallup-USA Today poll in mid-July.

With the NRA, which spent more than $2.2-million on lobbying last year, gearing up its lobbying efforts during Congress' August recess, it is uncertain whether congressional negotiators will include any new restrictions in a juvenile crime bill.

"The prospects are quite dismal," said U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, a Tampa Democrat who complained the debate has been clouded by extreme positions on both sides of the issue. "The voice of reason has been lost."

U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, an Altamonte Springs Republican and crime subcommittee chairman who sponsored the juvenile crime package, wants to reduce the time allowed for background checks from the current three business days to 72 hours. Gun control advocates say that weakens existing law, but McCollum said disagreements over how fast background checks should be done is blown out of proportion.

"It's an enormous hoopla over something we all agree on," said McCollum, who makes no predictions on the fate of a bid to require a waiting period for purchases at gun shows. "People are drawing lines in the sand, and they don't have any business doing that."

"It is not an evil object'

The line is clear to Paul Decker and Wayne Parker at A-1 Lock Key & Firearms in St. Petersburg.

"Prosecute the laws you've got, don't write new ones," said Decker, who works at the shop that has been operated by Parker's family since 1962.

Decker and Parker are NRA members, Republicans and strong advocates for responsible gun ownership. They offer gun safety classes, support the waiting period on handguns and favor strong penalties for crimes committed with firearms.

But they said the media's coverage of recent shootings unfairly portrays the NRA and gun owners as irresponsible. They said more gun controls will not stop people determined to harm others.

"If you don't want any part of them, fine," Parker said of guns. "That's okay. But at least know it is an object. It is not an evil object."

He said he has talked with his 17-year-old daughter about how to react if a shooting occurs at her high school.

"What else can you do?"

Gun control and the parties

In Florida, Gov. Bush, Gallagher and other Republicans are leading a two-pronged effort: tougher penalties for criminals who use guns and enhanced safety measures for schools.

New gun controls are not part of the plan.

Bush fulfilled a campaign pledge by signing into law a "10-20-Life" law that lengthens prison sentences for gun-carrying criminals, but he also supported two bills opposed by gun control advocates. He signed into law a bill that enables gun owners with concealed weapons permits issued by other states to carry their weapons in Florida. He also supported a bid to ban local governments from filing lawsuits against gun manufacturers, which was shelved at his suggestion after the Columbine High shootings in Colorado.

Last week, Bush said that it would be "one-dimensional to suggest that gun laws are going to deal with this" and that Floridians need to work on the "cultural elements" of the violence.

Florida House Minority Leader Les Miller has a different view.

The Tampa Democrat's son was seriously wounded in a shooting in 1997 in Tallahassee on the eve of his college graduation. Miller said last week that he turned the television off after seeing the live pictures from the Los Angeles shootings. He no longer reads detailed accounts about shootings in the newspapers.

Miller said he does not favor banning guns, but he is convinced the state needs more gun restrictions.

"Elected officials, regardless of what level you are on, we are going to have to do something about guns," Miller said. "I know what some of my colleagues are saying that we don't need any more gun laws on the books, but every day you pick up the paper and there is another shooting. It is just sickening."

In the race for president, the gun control debate breaks along similar partisan lines. Gore, Bradley and other Democrats believe it is an issue in which the Republican front-runner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, could be vulnerable.

The vice president supports photo identification for handgun owners, a ban on cheap handguns known as Saturday night specials and raising the minimum age for handgun ownership from 18 to 21. Bradley would ban cheap handguns, limit handgun purchases to one per month and require trigger locks.

On the Republican side, Dole is the only presidential candidate to endorse the three-day background checks at gun shows. George W. Bush, meanwhile, signed laws preventing Texas cities from filing lawsuits against gun manufacturers and making it easier for Texans to carry handguns.

"Now it's fashionable to ask presidential candidates about (guns) because of the state of the country," said Mike Herrington, director of security for Duval County schools, during a break at daylong meeting on school safety in Tampa last week.

"The fact is, as a nation we haven't been as concerned as we should have been. Now we are."