Thursday, September 09, 2004

Effort to Renew Weapons Ban Falters on Hill

The New York Times
September 9, 2004

Effort to Renew Weapons Ban Falters on Hill

WASHINGTON, Sept. 8 - Despite widespread popular support, the federal law banning the sale of 19 kinds of semiautomatic assault weapons is almost certain to expire on Monday, the result of intense lobbying by the National Rifle Association and the complicated election-year politics of Washington.

While President Bush has expressed support for legislation extending the ban and has said he would sign it into law, he has not pressured lawmakers to act, leading critics to accuse him of trying to have it both ways.

Efforts to renew the ban, which polls show is supported by at least two-thirds of Americans, have faltered this year on Capitol Hill. Democrats are well aware that they lost control of the House of Representatives in 1994, the year President Bill Clinton signed the original legislation, and have shied away from the issue of gun control, while Republican leaders have opposed the ban.

"I think the will of the American people is consistent with letting it expire, so it will expire," Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader, said on Wednesday.

The House majority leader, Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, dismissed the ban as "a feel-good piece of legislation" and said flatly that it would expire Monday, even if Mr. Bush made an effort to renew it.

"If the president asked me, it would still be no," Mr. DeLay said. "He knows, because we don't have the votes to pass the assault weapons ban. It will expire Monday, and that's that."

Democrats decried the influence of the rifle association and said the ban could be renewed if the president wanted it to.

"If you support something, you have a responsibility to advocate for it,'' said Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat and chief sponsor of the ban's renewal.

Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, who was a lead sponsor of the ban 10 years ago when he was in the House, blamed "a dysfunction of our politics'' for what he called "this Alice in Wonderland situation of repealing a law that everyone agrees has been overwhelmingly successful.''

The act prohibits, by name, the sale of 19 specific weapons that have the features of guns used by the military, and also outlaws magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition. While backers acknowledge that the law is riddled with loopholes, they cite federal statistics showing crimes traceable to assault weapons have declined by two-thirds since the law went into effect.

But the N.R.A., which has made overturning the ban its top legislative priority, says the law bans only "cosmetic accessories" on guns, and does little other than place a burden on gun manufacturers. "We felt from the very start it was bogus legislation," Wayne LaPierre, the association's chief executive, said.

On Wednesday, in a last-ditch effort to persuade lawmakers to renew the law, supporters of the ban - including police chiefs from around the country and victims of gun violence and their relatives - converged on Washington for a news conference.

Tom Mauser, whose 15-year-old son, Daniel, was killed in the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, arrived wearing his son's sneakers and took them off while addressing reporters, a pointed physical reminder of his loss.

James S. Brady, the former White House press secretary who suffered brain damage after being shot in the head by a handgun during the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, sat, mostly silent, in a wheelchair.

"The assault weapons are coming, they're coming next week," warned Mr. Brady's wife, Sarah, who has been a vocal advocate for restrictions on gun ownership for the past two decades.

Noting that Mr. Reagan had supported the weapons ban in 1994, Mrs. Brady said she felt deserted by the party she and her husband had worked so hard for. "I am angry," she said. "I am angry at our president. I'm so disappointed."

The White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, repeated on Wednesday that ''the president supports the reauthorization of the current law.'' But when asked by reporters what, if anything, Mr. Bush was doing to make that happen, Mr. McClellan replied: "The president doesn't set the Congressional timetable. Congress sets the timetable. And the president's views are very clear.''

Democrats hit hard at Mr. Bush. "We cry out for leadership,'' said Senator Schumer, adding that, "The president talks about flip-flops. Well, flip: I'm for it. Flop: House, don't do anything, don't pass it.''

The Democratic presidential nominee, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, supports renewing the ban, and took a break from campaigning earlier this year to return to the Senate when it came up for a vote as part of a broader piece of gun legislation. Fifty-two senators voted in favor of renewing the ban, but the underlying measure was defeated.

On Wednesday, a senior adviser to Mr. Kerry, Joe Lockhart, signaled that the ban would become a campaign issue. He said that Mr. Kerry planned to discuss the ban Monday, at an event timed to coincide with its expiration. Mr. Kerry, he said, "believes the cynical deal between the president and the House Republican leadership, hiding behind procedure, is completely unacceptable.''

A poll released this week by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found that 68 percent of Americans - and 32 percent of N.R.A. members - support renewing the ban. The findings, drawn from interviews with 4,959 adults, had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus one percentage point.

A separate national survey, conducted by Doug Schoen, a Democratic pollster, on behalf of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, found that 74 percent of voters support renewing the ban, but that support is highest - 79 percent - among independent voters who are being courted by President Bush and Mr. Kerry. That survey of 800 voters had a margin of error of three percentage points.

Mr. Schoen, who is not advising the Kerry campaign, also surveyed voters in the swing states of Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania and concluded that support for the ban was high enough to make it a significant issue. "If Kerry wants to distinguish his position from Bush, this provides a very convenient vehicle,'' he said.

But over all, Democrats have not talked much about the weapons ban. Senator Patty Murray, the Washington Democrat who is in a tough re-election fight, said voters, unaware that the ban was set to expire, had not made it an issue, and that neither had she.

"There are so many issues, education and health care and jobs and the economy in my state right now,'' Ms. Murray said. "People are really focused on that.''

And over the years the ban has been a losing issue for Democrats. After Republicans took control of the House in 1994, President Clinton remarked that the ban might have cost Democrats 20 seats. Some believe that former Vice President Al Gore lost crucial states, including his home state, Tennessee, in the 2000 election because he came out too strongly for gun control.

Even the ban's chief Democratic backers in Congress, Senator Feinstein and Representative Carolyn McCarthy of New York, acknowledged that Democrats were afraid to be too vocal in their support. "In the small states in particular, and the rural states, the control of the N.R.A. is much greater,'' said Ms. Feinstein, adding, They will specifically target a member, including a House member, and go after them.''

The N.R.A. has also said it will not endorse a candidate for president until after Congress recesses for the fall election, a pronouncement that the ban's backers say is tantamount to a threat not to endorse Mr. Bush until the ban expires. Mr. LaPierre said the claim was "100 percent untrue.'' But he blamed Democrats for the bill's undoing, saying they had tried, unwisely, to use it to gain political advantage when Mr. Clinton was president.

"I guess you could say politics is what enacted it in the first place,'' he said. "Politics is going to be the undoing of it.''

On Wednesday, as the police chiefs and victims' relatives fanned out across Capitol Hill to lobby lawmakers, a chief target was the House speaker, Representative J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois. In recent weeks, advocates for the ban have been approaching Mr. Hastert at bookstores around the country, where he has been signing copies of his new autobiography, "Speaker."

Several, including Mr. Mauser, said that Mr. Hastert seemed supportive. "He said yes, I support that,'' said Penny Okamoto, who said she saw Mr. Hastert on Aug. 16 at a Barnes & Noble store in Beaverton, Ore. "I was so surprised, I actually asked him twice.''

But on Wednesday, the speaker was noncommittal, saying that if the Senate was to adopt the bill, "then we'll take a look at it.''

Mr. Mauser said he was not satisfied with that, and would knock on Mr. Hastert's door on Thursday. He said that he had already spoken with an aide to his own congressman, Representative Tom Tancredo, a Republican who opposes the ban, and that the meeting did not go well.

"It ended on a pretty bad note,'' Mr. Mauser said. "Not even a shake of the hand.''