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web posted February 25, 2002

Paperwork shortage ties up U.S. gun sales

A minor change in a form for federal background checks blocked gun sales across the country last week because the new paperwork didn't reach dealers on time.

"We didn't know about it until the morning of February 19 when sales clerks called the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and they said they wouldn't process any more background checks unless they were on the new forms," said Dave Anver, president of Dave's Guns, the largest gun dealer in Colorado.

"No one in the entire state could make any sales without the new form," Anver said.

Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms spokesman Dave McCombs confirmed the next day that the forms were never mailed.

The company hired to print the forms couldn't complete the order, McCombs said. Because of that, ATF offices have been inundated with requests to have the forms faxed, he said.

"I've got everyone I have working for me and we've still got 100 or so dealers waiting for the new form," McCombs said. He faxed more than 200 forms on February 19.

Federally licensed dealers are required to get criminal background checks on gun buyers before approving sales.

The Colorado Bureau of Investigation, which conducts the checks for dealers in Colorado, was bombarded with calls on the 19th, said CBI agent Mike Igoe.

Igoe said the ATF notified him of the change a week earlier, but when he contacted some of the state's largest dealers, none had received even the notification letter.

"They truly have something to be angry about," he said. "They had to stop and get the proper form to conduct any business."

Most dealers expected to have at least a faxed version of the form on February 20, but McCombs said he wasn't sure when the problem would be resolved.

Anver said the new forms have boxes where applicants must check their ethnicity, rather than writing it in as they did before, and they require a specific location if the sale is made at a gun show.

The ATF announced the change in October in a letter to all federally licensed firearms dealers.

Justices take up tuition vouchers

The U.S. Supreme Court last week took up a landmark education case that promises to clarify the legality of private-school tuition vouchers, either invigorating or stifling the school-choice movement.

The high court heard arguments February 20 on the constitutionality of Ohio's 6-year-old "scholarship" program, which gives mostly low-income Cleveland parents publicly financed tuition grants of as much as $2,250 to send their children to a private or religious school.

The justices will decide whether Ohio's program advances religion, violating the separation of church and state guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Constitution.

About 4,000 Cleveland students have opted to accept vouchers rather than attend public schools. In the 1999-2000 school year, 82 percent of schools accepting vouchers were religious, and 96 percent of participating students attended religious schools; by 2001-02, the percentage of voucher students in religious schools had risen to 99 percent.

Voucher advocates, led by the Ohio attorney general's office and the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice, assert that the program gives parents a real choice about their children's education and that public money indirectly flows to religious schools only when parents choose them.

Parents also can send their children to charter schools, known in Ohio as "community schools," which are self-governing public schools. Ohio provides community schools with $4,518 per child, double the amount for voucher students.

Vouchers supporters believe providing such choices is in keeping with the legacy of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which ended school segregation and overturned the "separate but equal" doctrine.

Ohio's program lets suburban schools use vouchers, but none does.

Opponents of Cleveland's school voucher program -- led by teachers unions and civil liberties groups, such as People for the American Way -- counter that vouchers violate the Constitution's "establishment clause," which bars the government from sanctioning religion.

Adversaries say Ohio's program is so heavily "skewed towards religion" that a significant portion of the voucher money will flow to religious schools no matter what "choices" parents make. Because schools can use the money however they like, it may be used to advance religious missions, including the purchase of religious icons or prayer books.

The NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, siding with voucher opponents, denounce the analogy to Brown vs. Board of Education as "insulting to the thousands of courageous African-American parents and students who made this court's Brown decision become a reality."

Legal analysts predict that the closely divided U.S. Supreme Court will decide the case on a 5-4 ruling, with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor providing the decisive vote.

"She has been the pivotal vote in a lot of the church-state cases," said Elliot Mincberg, legal director for People for the American Way.

O'Connor appears to be "fashioning a middle course in church-and-state cases, not unlike the positions she's taken in abortion cases," said A.E. Dick Howard, a University of Virginia constitutional law professor. "She's looking for some sensible middle course that will ease the restrictions somewhat but still sound a note of caution about state aid."

The Supreme Court has declined to hear several voucher challenges, notably Milwaukee's decade-old program, which has been upheld by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

In recent years, the high court has tended to affirm programs that channel public money to religious schools for a restricted, secular purpose, such as purchasing computers. Justices also have approved tax deductions for parents' educational expenses in public or private schools. In the 1970s, the Supreme Court overturned several tuition grant programs that funneled public money to private schools.

At particular issue here is a 1973 case, called Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty vs. Nyquist, in which the Supreme Court overturned a New York law aimed at rescuing financially fragile religious schools. The legislature enacted three forms of aid: direct grants to private schools for "maintenance and repair;" tuition grants to low-income parents of private-school children and tax relief for parents whose income was too high to qualify for reimbursements.

Teachers unions and civil liberties groups argue that Nyquist and other court decisions, including one in a Pennsylvania case, should guide the justices to overturn Cleveland's voucher program.

But the state and its backers contend that Nyquist should not compel the justices' reasoning because the facts differ significantly, and the court's rulings on church-state issues have evolved over the last three decades.

Ohio Assistant Attorney General Judith French, who will argue before the justices, describes Ohio's law as a neutral program based on "genuine parental choice." She says Ohio doesn't give religious schools direct grants and bars schools from discriminating based on religion, race or ethnic background.

Confronting a worsening crisis in Cleveland's public schools, where only a third of students graduate, the Ohio General Assembly passed the scholarship program in 1995, and then-Gov. George Voinovich signed it into law.

"In Cleveland, generations and generations of children are being lost," said Christine Suma, a mother of four voucher recipients who has joined advocates in the suit. "Why can't I have my educational tax dollars to send my child to a school of my choice? It's really no one's business what the school is."

But voucher-foe Doris Simmons-Harris believes that "we need to start putting our money back into the school system." Her son, a 10th-grader who suffers from attention deficit disorder, attends Collinwood High School, a Cleveland public school. The nation's once-esteemed public school system is "being taken away from us, because the money's going elsewhere," said Simmons-Harris, who challenged the program soon after it began.

The Ohio Supreme Court overturned it on a technicality, which the Legislature later corrected. Voucher opponents then launched a challenge in federal court.

Gore steps up fund-raising efforts

Heading back to the state that lost the election for the former vice president, Al Gore plans to hold fund-raising events in Florida, as well as New York and California, in the coming weeks to finance his political action committee.

Gore stepped back into the political fund-raising ring February 19 with a private event for about 40 donors in the home of a political ally. The event raised more than $100,000 for Leadership '02, Gore's PAC.

"Tuesday night was a quiet kick off with old friends and supporters, some of who have supported Gore since 1988," said Gore spokesman Jano Cabrera. "In the weeks to come, he will meet with Democratic loyalists across the country to help raise resources for Democrats in 2002."

Gore has not said whether he will run for president in 2004, but has emerged back in the Democratic spotlight in recent weeks.

On February 22, Gore held a more public, lower priced fund-raiser in downtown Washington. The $25 per person contribution base was intended to draw a younger crowd of supporters.

This week, Gore will hold fund-raisers at private homes in Miami and Fort Lauderdale. On March 6, Gore will travel to New York City and on March 17, he heads to Los Angeles. Gore also plans to host a fund-raising event in Tennessee in March but details are not yet decided.

So far, Gore raised $385,000 for Leadership '02 between September and December 2001, but that is below what he will need if he decides to run for president again in 2004. Of course, that money was raised without any fund-raising or direct mail solicitations.

Other Democrats considering a run for the White House have also been raising money. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry leads the pack with $2.9 million in the bank after raising almost $4 million last year. Kerry's efforts are fueled by his Senate re-election bid in 2002, though he faces no strong opposition at this point.

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