WASHINGTON — Three former presidents endorsed legislation Wednesday to ban the future manufacture, sale and possession of combat-style assault weapons as a closely divided House neared a showdown today on the hotly controversial issue.
Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan sent a letter to all House members expressing their support for the measure, effectively joining President Clinton in urging approval of the ban.
Together, the four make a formidable lobby, stretching across a broad ideological spectrum and giving political cover to wavering House members.
As pressures intensified Wednesday, several lawmakers who had never voted against the National Rifle Assn., the leading opponent of the ban, announced that they would support the measure.
Yet, while momentum was clearly with supporters of the bill, congressional aides continued to predict late Wednesday that it would be narrowly defeated--and proponents acknowledged that they were about five votes short of victory.
"It's going to be neck and neck," said Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), chief sponsor of the bill. "This is going to be some horse race."
With Clinton continuing his campaign on behalf of the ban, law enforcement officers joined with Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), author of a Senate-passed ban on assault weapons, to urge approval.
"I beg the undecided members of the House--give this bill a chance," Feinstein said in an emotional speech here. "I can't really share with you the fear I feel if this does not get a positive vote."
In their letter, the three former presidents said: "This is a matter of vital importance to the public safety. . . . Although assault weapons account for less than 1% of the guns in circulation, they account for nearly 10% of the guns traced to crime. . . .
"While we recognize that assault-weapon legislation will not stop all assault-weapon crime, statistics prove that we can dry up the supply of these guns, making them less accessible to criminals.
"We urge you to listen to the American public and to the law enforcement community and support a ban on the further manufacture of these weapons."
Former President George Bush, an opponent of gun-control measures during his term in the White House, did not sign the letter.
Today's vote amounts to a directive to a Senate-House conference committee on whether to include the Senate-passed ban on assault weapons in a final version of the crime bill, which must be ratified by both chambers before being sent to the President.
The House bill would ban the manufacture and transfer of 19 semiautomatic assault weapons, copycat models and others with more than one military-style feature such as a pistol grip or detachable, high-capacity clip. Such guns currently lawfully owned would be exempted. Another 650 models commonly used for hunting or target shooting would still be permitted.
The last time the House voted on a bill to bar assault-style weapons--in late 1991--the measure was rejected, 247 to 177. Both sides agreed Wednesday that the outcome will be far closer this time.
There were some surprising expressions of support for the ban Wednesday as the House approached a decision that could have an impact on the 1994 elections.
For example, Rep. Ronald D. Coleman (D-Tex.) agreed to support the ban although he has never voted against an NRA position since coming to Congress in 1972. After Clinton telephoned him Wednesday, however, Coleman switched and said he will go along with the wishes of law enforcement officers in his district.
"If it is a political offense that costs me my job to try to take Uzis out of the hands of schoolkids and make it harder for drug thugs and gangs to get the machine guns that wantonly kill our police officers and children, then so be it," Coleman said in a statement.
Similarly, Rep. Michael A. Andrews (D-Tex.), who said he voted against a proposed ban in 1991 because it was too vague, endorsed the current bill as drawn narrowly enough to protect the rights of hunters and sportsmen.
"I have always believed in the old Texas saying that gun control means steady aim," Andrews told reporters. "At the same time . . . I am convinced that if we limit the availability of military-style assault weapons, we will be taking a meaningful step toward improving the safety of our streets without trampling on our constitutional rights."
Andrews, a lifelong hunter, asked: "Who can, in good conscience, defend such weapons as appropriate for hunters or sportsmen? Anyone that needs a 20-round clip of high-velocity ammunition to fell a duck or deer needs to look into taking up golf."
Conversions like these have raised the hopes of supporters of the ban.
"For the first time last night, I went to bed thinking that this was winnable," Schumer said. "We are really gaining momentum."