No Gunfight On Capitol Hill

By David Paul Kuhn,
CBSNews.com Chief Political Writer


When Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., advocates for the Congressional renewal of the assault weapons ban, it's not politics – it's personal. The gun used to kill McCarthy's husband, and nearly her son, had a 15-round magazine that was forbidden the following year as part of the 1994 assault weapons ban.

Monday at midnight, the ten-year ban will expire. And what is not political to McCarthy has been the subject of political brinkmanship inside the corridors of Congress.

The assault weapons ban prohibits 19 types of semiautomatic weapons, from the AK-47 to the Kalashnikov to Uzi rifles. It also forbids large-capacity gun magazines that hold more than ten bullets.

The Republican leadership in the House has stated flatly that the measure will not get renewed. "We don't have the votes," Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said Thursday.

Yet critics point out its DeLay's party that drives the agenda because it maintains the majority. Though several Republicans in the Senate support extending the ban, a renewal died in early March as a part of larger legislation.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., sees 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 has indicated he would sign a law renewing the ban, but he has not utilized 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.

The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found that 68 percent of Americans, as well as a third of National Rifle Association members, support renewing the assault weapons ban. Congressional support is far less.

Democrats accuse House Republicans of being beholden to the NRA, the leading gun-rights organization. The NRA strongly opposes the ban. Republicans argue that the measure that passed in 1994 was watered down to the point of irrelevancy.

Undermining the ban is 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 is 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 argue 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 is not pushing 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 assault weapons ban Monday, 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.

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.

With Monday fast approaching, law enforcement groups are speaking out publicly against the expiration of the ban. The NRA's Cox waves it off.

"It's going to sunset on Monday," he said. "And the sun will still rise and set on Tuesday."

By David Paul Kuhn