The abrupt about-face came when several GOP senators, who had voted with their leaders to reject a bid by Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D., N.J.) to close the gun-show loophole on background checks Wednesday, now said they wanted to back a renewed effort to do so.
The new proposal came from Sen. Larry E. Craig (R., Idaho), who had led the drive to oppose mandatory background checks at gun shows the day before. The latest plan "requires 24-hour background checks for all transfers of arms at gun shows." Current law requires licensed dealers, but not unlicensed dealers, to conduct the checks.
Several Democratic senators said they were wary of the new Republican stance and demanded time to examine the proposed substitute amendment for suspected loopholes. Administration officials said they doubted it would accomplish its stated goals.
"It's an abomination," Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D., Ill.) said, noting that the new measure still would exempt certain gun sales from background checks. A vote on the plan could come as early as today.
Every year about 5,000 gun shows are held throughout the country, attended by more than five million people. Licensed gun dealers at the shows are required by federal law to run instant background checks on buyers. But unlicensed dealers at the shows - whose transactions account for about 40 percent of the guns sold - do not have to run the checks.
Lautenberg, noting that some of the weapons used in the Columbine High School massacre three weeks ago in Colorado were obtained at gun shows, moved Wednesday to require such checks. But he was trumped by Craig, an NRA board member, who offered a competing amendment that made such checks strictly voluntary in cases of private sales.
The Republican-controlled Senate adopted Craig's amendment, 53-45, after rejecting Lautenberg's, 51-47.
Then, as one Senate GOP staff member ruefully noted, "All hell broke loose." As the word got out to the public, the protests streamed in.
And several GOP senators complained bitterly to their leaders that they had misunderstood the issue or, as Sen. Gordon H. Smith (R., Ore.) said: "I was misled."
He later told the Senate yesterday, "I am proud to proclaim myself as a defender of the [right to bear arms] Second Amendment, but only for law-abiding citizens - not for nuts and crooks."
Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), a presidential candidate and another who opposed Lautenberg's amendment and voted with Craig, implored Majority Leader Trent Lott (R., Miss.) and other leaders to reconsider the Senate's decision.
"I did not realize we hadn't closed this loophole," McCain said.
After Wednesday's vote, President Clinton declared Senate Republicans had "passed up this chance to save lives" after Littleton.
Attorney General Janet Reno yesterday also hammered away: "I am stunned that less than one month after the worst school shooting in our nation's history, the Senate has decided to make it easier for felons, fugitives and other prohibited purchasers to buy guns."
Both of Maine's Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, who had voted with Craig, also weighed in.
"We've now struck the right balance," Collins said yesterday. "Our package now puts together reasonable restrictions on the sales of guns [at shows]."
Lautenberg, after the Republicans' U-turn, could barely conceal his glee as he fenced with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R., Utah) over a Democratic demand for more time to debate the matter.
"If you've got to eat crow," the New Jersey senator quipped, "you've got to eat it when it's warm."
And Democrats used the momentum from their victory on the background checks to chalk up a second win yesterday on banning further imports of large ammo clips for assault weapons.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) said the 59-39 vote on her ammo-clip amendment reflected "a greater public cognizance of the problem."
Sen. John Ashcroft (R., Mo.) obtained overwhelming support for a companion amendment that would bar juveniles from possessing semiautomatic assault weapons such AK-47s and Uzis.
In addition, Ashcroft said, "my amendment imposes severe criminal penalties on an adult who sells such a weapon to a juvenile for use in a crime and on anyone who uses a firearm to commit a violent act in school."
GOP leaders wrapped the background-check amendment in a package of other changes that would mainly beef up penalties for gun offenses committed by juveniles.
Craig acknowledged that Sens. Smith and McCain "were not happy with what we did" and that several senators had received "angry calls" from constituents.
Even though the reversal was, as Craig put it, accepted "grudgingly" by the NRA, the gun lobby would not come away empty-handed in the new proposal. Included in the GOP's package yesterday was a provision that would largely shield Internet sellers of guns and explosives from criminal investigators.
Rather than simply banning Internet sales, the amendment would forgive the sellers for any crimes later committed with their products if they did not know that the buyers meant to commit the offenses. Background checks of buyers are not required for one-to-one, private sales of guns and explosive materials.