CBSNews.com Chief Political Writer
When Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., fought for assault weapons ban ten years ago, it was not politics – it was personal. The gun used to kill McCarthy's husband, and nearly her son, had a 15-round magazine that would forbidden by the new law.
At 12:01 Monday morning, that ten-year ban expired. And what was not political to McCarthy was all politics inside the corridors of Congress.
The ban's expiration marks an immense victory for the National Rifle Association, the leading gun-rights organization that strongly opposed the ban and lobbied for its dismissal over the past decade.
It expired due to Congressional Republicans refusal to renew it, citing studies belying the ban's effectiveness. The GOP argued that the measure that passed in 1994 was watered down to the point of irrelevancy.
Democrats accused House Republicans of being beholden to the NRA. But Democrats did not take up the issue until it was virtually too late because of concerns it could hurt the party in the coming presidential election. In past elections, the issue has damaged the party politically.
The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found that 68 percent of Americans, as well as a third of NRA members, support renewing the assault weapons ban. Congressional support was far less. For this reason, the ban has not been a shot heard much on the campaign trail.
As expiration neared last week, Republican leadership in the House stated flatly that the measure was not getting renewed. "We don't have the votes," Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said Thursday.
Yet critics pointed out it's DeLay's party that drives the agenda because it maintains the majority. Though several Republicans in the Senate supported extending the ban, a renewal died there in early March as a part of larger legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., saw no reason to push for renewal without House support.
"It just doesn't make much sense to pass something when the House says it's not going to consider it," Frist's press secretary, Amy Call, said.
President Bush indicated he would have signed a law renewing the ban, but he did not utilize the bully pulpit to push such legislation.
"He can't have it both ways," said McCarthy, speaking by phone from her Long Island office. "He certainly got the Medicare bill done; he made calls all that evening, he made calls while it was being held up for three and a half hours to make sure that the bill won.
"I know what guns can do," she continued. "Maybe some of the younger members on the other end of the train would have been saved if this bill had been passed then."
McCarthy's husband was one of six people shot and killed by Colin Ferguson on a Long Island Railroad train in December 1993. Her son was shot in the head and remains partially paralyzed.
Undermining the ban was the fact that after the 19 guns were forbidden, some manufacturers immediately began producing slightly modified clones.
One such clone was used in the 2002 Washington, D.C.–area sniper shootings.
The semiautomatic AR-15 Sporter was banned in the 1994 legislation but a slightly modified version of the AR-15 was used in the shooting spree that crippled the capital.
The Violence Policy Center, a gun-control advocacy and research group, has found that a majority of the brands that are listed by manufacturer in the law have been remarketed in reconfigured "sporterized" designs. Of the 211 police officers killed from 1998 to 2001, the Center found that 41 were shot with assault weapons, a significant portion of those reconfigured clones.
"It doesn't matter if it expires," said Kristen Rand, the legislative director of the Violence Policy Center. "The threat to law enforcement has not diminished at all since the 1994 law."
The group supports stricter legislation currently in Congress, but unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled House. Rand said if the president was truly against assault weapon proliferation he can "tighten imports," a power that is within his executive authority.
"America's streets will not be as safe because of the choice George Bush is making," Democratic nominee John Kerry said in St. Louis on Friday.
But, said Rand, "It's a double-edged sword" for Mr. Bush. "If he signs it he risks alienation of the pro-gun grassroots, but if doesn't sign he risks alienating law-enforcement groups over time."
Proponents argued that the ban was a beginning not an end.
"I don't want to say something is better than nothing. I always believe in going for the best," McCarthy said. "But this is the bill that was unfortunately hammered out 10 years ago."
Its expiration, however, is "immoral," McCarthy added.
The NRA is content with Mr. Bush's stance because the president did not push for a renewal of the assault weapons ban.
"Gun owners know the difference between a Kerry presidency and a Bush presidency," said Chris Cox, chief lobbyist for the NRA. Cox said if you take a "snapshot" of Mr. Bush's record, such as "his support for the Second Amendment as an individual right," there is no comparison to Kerry's "20 years of voting against gun owners."
Kerry, an avid hunter, says he supports the Second Amendment right to bear arms. But he adds that the right should not apply to guns designed for military purposes, which he says the assault weapons ban expressly forbids.
The NRA has still not endorsed a candidate for president. But with the expiration of the ban, it is expected to back President Bush.
Cox said the endorsement is not based on this one issue, although the NRA is so fervently against the ban that it withdrew support for legislation which would have freed weapons manufacturers of liability in gun-related crimes because the ban was attached.
The Bush administration supported legal immunity for gun makers, but after the NRA withdrew its support the bill died in early March.
Former President Clinton signed the assault weapons ban into law in 1994. Soon after, Democrats lost their majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. The Democratic defeat was blamed, in part, on the party's effort to pass the ban.
In the 2000 presidential race, Democrat Al Gore's support for gun-control legislation is considered a factor in the crucial loss of his home state, Tennessee.
As the expiration neared, law enforcement groups spoke out publicly and loudly against the expiration of the ban. But the NRA's Cox waved it off on Friday.
"It's going to sunset on Monday," he said. "And the sun will still rise and set on Tuesday."
By David Paul Kuhn