Assault weapons ban renewal in doubt

June 28, 2004
San Francisco Chronicle

Washington -- Sen. Dianne Feinstein knows the odds are increasingly daunting as she tries to win congressional renewal of her 10-year-old assault weapons ban before it expires Sept. 13, and she warns that if the law lapses "you can expect the market to become flooded'' with such guns as AK-47s and Uzis.

The California Democrat will be home in San Francisco on Tuesday to join her colleague Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom in marking the 11th anniversary week of the 101 California St. shootings that killed eight people and left six others wounded. The shootings helped persuade Congress to pass the assault weapons ban a decade ago. A frustrated Feinstein is looking toward November's elections to produce a president and a House leadership more supportive of gun control.

"I really believe passionately in this,'' Feinstein said in an interview about her bid for the renewal. "I'm not going to give up.''

Feinstein won a momentary victory on March 2 when the Senate voted 52-47 to adopt the renewal as an amendment to a gun manufacturers' liability shield legislation backed by the National Rifle Association. But the NRA scuttled the entire bill when it told its supporters that it didn't want the liability shield, which was the industry's main legislative goal for the year, to pass with Feinstein's assault ban amendment.

Feinstein is searching for another piece of legislation to serve as a vehicle for her amendment, which bans the manufacture and sale of 19 types of semiautomatic weapons and ammunition clips of more than 10 rounds. But there are only about 20 legislative days left in Congress before Sept. 13, and even if the bill passes the Senate, the House Republican leadership has said it won't allow the renewal to come up for a floor vote.

The NRA and other elements of the powerful gun lobby say the Feinstein's assault weapons ban has been ineffective and violates what they consider Americans' Second Amendment rights to own guns. The groups have lobbied vehemently to keep the legislation from reaching the floor.

On its legislative action Web site, the NRA tells its members it is girded for action. "The stage is now set for a showdown, and you can be sure we're in for a sustained political battle over the next three months,'' it said.

During his 2000 campaign, President Bush pledged to sign a renewal of the assault weapons law, a pledge repeated since then many times by Bush spokesmen. But Feinstein and her allies blast the president for not lobbying Congress to pass the bill.

"The president has done nothing,'' Feinstein said. "His party is in control and is controlled by the gun industry.

"We need a president who doesn't want assault weapons on our streets,'' added Feinstein, who warned that after the ban ends, "you can expect more incidents'' such as the July 1, 1993, shootings at 101 California in which a gunman used two TEC-9 semiautomatic weapons on a rampage through the office tower. The guns were among those banned under the law passed narrowly the next year.

Feinstein said the percentage of assault weapons used in crimes has fallen by two-thirds since the legislation took effect. Opponents, using a separate set of statistics, say such weapons were used in 2 percent of violent crimes before 1994, a figure that has remained constant.

Robert Spitzer of the State University of New York at Cortland, who has studied gun legislation, said Feinstein can claim some success.

"There is truth in that the assault weapons ban put a partial brake on guns and that effect will be gone after Sept. 13,'' he said.

Even with the law in effect, semiautomatic weapons have been readily available since 1994 through the largely cosmetic changes manufacturers have been allowed to make to keep their guns on the market. Hundreds of types of semiautomatics remained legal.

Also, as Feinstein points out in response to critics who say she is out to seize their weapons, all pre-1994 guns are still legal.

None of the arguments matter to the rifle association. The group's executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, told the NRA annual convention in Pittsburgh in April that once Sept. 13 comes, Feinstein's law will be history.

"I'm here to promise you that's the end of it. It's over,'' he said. "On Sept. 14, the sun will rise and it will never see the light of day again as long as we stay strong.''

On the NRA's new radio program, host Cam Edwards has told listeners that he expected Feinstein and her supporters to claim that the law's demise would mean a flood of guns, a claim he described as false.

"What you are going to hear in the media is the line that there'll be Uzis in the hands of terrorists. ... There will be an effort to paint it as an antiterrorism bill,'' he said on Thursday's program.

For Bush, the fading chances that the ban renewal will reach his desk is good news, said Richard Feldman, a lobbyist for gun manufacturers.

"It would be close to his political death if he signed it before the election,'' he said, because gun rights supporters would take it out on him at the polls, probably by staying away rather than voting for Bush's Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who voted for the ban's renewal.

"Come January, it's a different story. Then, if he's re-elected, he'd be forced to sign the bill, if he gets a clean one that just contains an extension of the existing law,'' Feldman said.

Feinstein and her allies are trying to stir up public interest in the debate, but it's hard in a political climate where the war in Iraq, the battle against terrorism and economic concerns are at center stage. "Those three issues loom large and will dwarf any others,'' Spitzer said.

In such a climate, the rifle association and other gun lobbies gain political traction because their adherents tend to be single-issue voters who can punish those in Congress who support the assault weapons ban or other gun control measures.

That's one reason that even Feinstein admitted that some House members are breathing a sigh of relief that they won't have to vote on her legislation this year, going into tough races in some closely divided districts.

But she insists she will persist.

"Right is on our side. Public opinion is on our side. It's only the sheer power of the gun lobby that stands in the way,'' Feinstein said.

The "sheer power of the gun lobby" is you - individual citizens who join together, pooling your hard-earned dollars in advocacy groups like OFCC and the NRA to fight against European-born billionaires like George Soros (Brady Campaign/Million Mom March supporter) or liberal gun controllers like founder and billionaire Andrew McKelvey (creator of the so-called Americans for Gun Safety).

There are many false claims in this story from the anti-gunners, but one stands out - Feinstein's claim the public opinion is on her side. Consider this:

CNN Poll Shows Growing Opposition to Extension of Clinton Gun Ban

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