Bush backs renewing ban on assault weapons

By Shannon McCaffrey
Knight Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration is bucking the National Rifle Association and supporting a renewal of the assault-weapons ban, set to expire just before the presidential election.

"The president supports the current law, and he supports reauthorization of the current law," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told Knight Ridder.

Tossing out the ban on semiautomatic weapons is a top priority for the NRA. President Bush said during his presidential campaign that he supported the current ban, but it was less clear whether he would support an extension.

The White House comment comes just before the NRA's annual convention and as the gun debate overall shows signs of fresh life after several years of near hibernation. Republicans now control the House and the Senate and are using their newfound power to breathe life into the stalled pro-gun rights agenda. This week, they pushed through a bill in the House to give gun makers and dealers sweeping immunity from lawsuits.

The assault-weapons ban is considered a crown jewel by the gun-control movement, and even though its expiration is more than a year away it is already being watched closely.

Attorney General John Ashcroft, who like Bush is a staunch gun-rights supporter, muddied the waters in a recent appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee when he refused to say whether the administration supports an extension. Ashcroft cited a 1999 Justice Department report that said the ban's impact on deadly gun violence is unclear.

Ashcroft has been pushing a pro-gun rights agenda at the Justice Department, seeking to have federal background checks on gun sales destroyed after 24 hours and embracing an expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment's guarantee of gun ownership rights.

The White House comment surprised those on both sides of the gun issue.

"That's lousy politics," said Grover Norquist, an NRA board member who leads the conservative pro-Bush group Americans for Tax Reform.

Joe Sudbay of the Violence Policy Center said it "creates a huge problem for Bush with the NRA."

"The NRA said they would be working out of the Oval Office when Bush was elected. This creates an interesting situation for them," he said.

Matt Bennett of Americans for Gun Safety applauded Bush's stance but urged the president to use his political clout to push for Congress to act. If Congress does nothing, the ban could just expire.

Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA, said Bush's support was somewhat irrelevant.

"Ultimately, I think this issue is going to be decided by the Congress," LaPierre said.

If it is, the NRA has reason to be optimistic.

This week's action on the immunity legislation for dealers and gun makers reflects the interest of Republicans to resurrect the pro-gun rights agenda.

Congress had been poised to act on the bill last fall, but the deadly sniper attacks in the Washington area prompted a delay. The measure has enough co-sponsors in the Senate to pass that chamber unless Democrats dig in their heels and filibuster.

Supporters of the immunity bill say it shields gun makers from bankruptcy because of frivolous lawsuits that became popular during the Clinton administration. Lawsuits filed by cities against gun manufacturers - modeled on similar litigation against the tobacco industry - have so far been unsuccessful but have kept gun makers tied up in court.

Gun-control advocates say the immunity bill will keep innocent victims of gun violence from getting their day in court.

The gun industry would become the first to receive blanket immunity protections if the bill succeeds.

The action on Capitol Hill coincides with another attempt in court to sue manufacturers, this one by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Filed in New York, the NAACP contends that weapons disproportionately harm minorities. While a number of cities have sued the gun industry with little success in order to collect damages for gun violence, the NAACP lawsuit seeks to impose new restrictions on handgun marketing and distribution.

Testifying at the case was Robert Ricker, the former head of the American Shooting Sports Council, the main gun industry trade association. Ricker is the gun industry's first whistleblower. He says weapons manufacturers have known for some time that dealers were selling firearms to juveniles and criminals but remained silent for fear of being held liable.

The active gun debate stands in contrast to several years of inaction.

Democrats largely abandoned the gun issue in the 2002 midterm election after some determined that it had been an albatross for Democratic presidential hopeful Al Gore in 2000.

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., elected to Congress on a gun-control platform after her husband was killed and her son wounded by a deranged gunman on a Long Island commuter train in 1993, acknowledged that some Democrats are nervous about the gun issue nowadays.

"But it's coming back. I think you're going to see it popping up a lot this session with the Republicans in control," she said.

She said soccer moms in the suburbs so crucial to election success draw the line at assault-style weapons such as AK-47s and Uzis, which can quickly fire multiple shots.

The 1994 bill made it illegal to manufacture, sell or possess certain semiautomatic weapons that discharge one shot for each pull of the trigger and automatically load a round of ammunition without being cocked. The prohibition is due to expire in September 2004.

But the NRA's LaPierre noted that the political climate on guns has changed dramatically in the last few years. The GOP has a lock on the White House and Congress, and he said that even a number of Democrats are campaigning on a pro-gun platform.

One who has not is Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who will introduce a bill to reauthorize the assault weapons ban in the coming weeks.

A new report due out later this year as a follow up to the 1999 report cited by Ashcroft could provide her with some fresh evidence. One of its authors, Jeffrey Roth, said preliminary findings showed that high-capacity magazines for ammunition, banned as part of the 1994 bill, were being linked increasingly to violent crimes.

"These could end up emerging as even more important than the banned weapons," said Roth, who works at the University of Pennsylvania's Jerry Lee Center of Criminology.


What is an "assault weapon"?
"An assault weapon is a rifle, shotgun or pistol designed to spray large numbers of bullets as rapidly as possible. Military armies around the world have designed various weapons with this capability for use in close combat. Their purpose is to kill as many people as possible." Sen. Diane Feinstein Web Site

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Assault Weapons

Assault Weapons

The world's latest assault weaponry, and the changing missions of those weapons in military and law enforcement applications, are discussed in detail throughout, to include numerous field-tests.
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