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A Fight to Extend Weapons Ban Is Likely

Even with the backing of Bush, Feinstein will have a difficult time getting House passage.

May 09, 2003|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — One of the first items visitors to Sen. Dianne Feinstein's Capitol Hill office are likely to notice is a pen.

Framed and hung prominently on the wall, it was used by President Clinton in 1994 to sign the federal ban on assault weapons -- a law, written by Feinstein, that she regards as one of her proudest achievements.

But the ban expires next year, and the California Democrat is facing a tough fight in her effort to extend the measure, even though she has an unexpected ally in President Bush.

As a presidential candidate in 2000, Bush broke with his gun-lobby allies by coming out in support of extending the ban.

On Thursday, Feinstein launched a campaign not only to extend the ban but also to include a provision that would prohibit the import of high-capacity ammunition magazines.

Her biggest challenge will be getting the extension passed in the House, where Democrats from rural areas joined the Republican majority in 1996 to vote to repeal the weapons ban. That repeal effort died in the Senate.

Acknowledging the battle ahead, Feinstein recalled the long odds against her a decade ago when a colleague said, "You're new here. You don't know what the gunners are going to do to you." Nevertheless, she prevailed.

In her latest effort, however, only one Republican, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, joined her in formally introducing an extension of the ban. They appeared in a room filled with photographs of the military-style weapons. "Assault weapons are the weapons of choice for criminals and those who are seeking to do the maximum damage possible in the shortest amount of time," Feinstein said. "They are not weapons of choice for hunters or those trying to protect themselves."

Feinstein's measure would make permanent the ban on the manufacture and import of 19 types of military-style assault weapons, such as AK-47s. It also would close what she called a loophole in the 1994 law that permits imports of high-capacity ammunition magazines -- those holding more than 10 rounds.

In the House, similar legislation was introduced Thursday by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), whose husband was gunned down in 1993 and who was elected to Congress three years later, defeating a Republican who backed the ban's repeal.

Her proposal would strengthen the current law by including weapons modified to get around the ban. So far, however, she too has only one Republican co-sponsor, Christopher Shays of Connecticut.

Their efforts come as the gun lobby savors a victory in the House, which voted last month to shield gun makers from lawsuits brought by crime victims. That measure stands a good chance of passing the Senate.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is co-sponsoring Feinstein's bill, urged Bush to take an active role in pushing for the law's extension. "If the president wants this bill to become law, it will," he said Thursday.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Thursday that the president views the extension as "a reasonable step."

"Often, the president will agree, of course, with the National Rifle Assn.," Fleischer said. "On this issue, he does not."

The emotionally charged debate over gun control has changed dramatically since a spate of high-profile shootings -- including the 1999 massacre of 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. -- prompted a Democratic stampede for new limits on gun purchases. But Democrats took a more cautious approach to the issue after suffering election losses in 2000 that were tied to their push for gun control.

"There are a lot more supporters of gun control than opponents, but opponents are more likely to turn out and to vote on this issue," said University of Maryland political scientist Ric Uslaner.

The NRA downplayed Bush's support for the ban by saying that it would make its fight in Congress. Still, pro-NRA members of Congress are circulating a letter urging Bush to "defend the Second Amendment" and "help our nation in this time of great need by allowing law-abiding citizens to use the weapon of their choice."

In an interview, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) said: "Most Republicans believe that if someone has not committed a crime, they should be permitted to own a semi-automatic rifle."

But McCarthy said she believes the White House might want to have the ban move rapidly through Congress now, rather than have it come up during an election year. The ban expires Sept. 13, 2004.

Feinstein, joined by her California Democratic colleague, Barbara Boxer, recalled the events that led to her initial fight for the ban -- a 1993 shooting rampage in a San Francisco office building that left eight people dead and six wounded. The attacker was armed with a .45-caliber Colt semiautomatic pistol and two 9-millimeter TEC-9 Luger semiautomatic pistols and carried more than 600 rounds of ammunition, loaded in clips. "I remember it like it was yesterday," Feinstein said.

Seeking passage of the bill, Feinstein, who became mayor of San Francisco after Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were shot to death in City Hall in 1978, walked the halls of Congress with gunshot victims, pressing House lawmakers for votes, an unusual practice for a senator. She recruited law enforcement agencies to lobby House members.

On Thursday, Feinstein and an NRA spokesman disagreed over whether the legislation had reduced crime.

NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam asked, "Why should we keep ineffective laws on the books?"

According to Feinstein, however, assault weapons accounted for 8.2% of guns used in crimes in 1993. That number had dropped to 3.2% by late 1996, the last date for which figures are available, she said. Feinstein also said she would like to push for stronger gun controls, but "it isn't in the cards right now."

"We know that if we push it too far, we'll have no bill," Schumer added.

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