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Votes 'Not There' to Extend Gun Ban, House Leader Says

DeLay predicts GOP-led chamber is unlikely to reauthorize the law targeting assault weapons, even though Bush backs its renewal.

May 14, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), a longtime foe of gun-control legislation, predicted Tuesday that the Republican-controlled chamber would allow the federal ban on assault weapons to lapse, even though President Bush supports its extension.

"The votes in the House are not there" to renew the ban, DeLay told reporters.

The ban on the import and manufacture of AK-47s and 18 other semiautomatic weapons was enacted in 1994, during the Clinton administration, and is scheduled to expire in September 2004 unless Congress and Bush act.

DeLay's assessment is significant because, as the second-ranking House Republican, he helps control the legislative schedule and wields great influence within the GOP majority. There are 229 Republicans in the 435-member House, most of them loath to cross their leader. His comment signaled that advocates of extending the gun law face a formidable barrier.

That development came as Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, are mounting a drive to reauthorize the ban, which is seen as one of the most significant gun-control measures of the last decade.

Feinstein's effort also would close what she has termed a loophole in the 1994 law by prohibiting imports of high-capacity ammunition magazines -- those holding more than 10 rounds.

In speaking against a renewal, the majority leader put himself at odds with the stated position of the president, who as a candidate in 2000 endorsed an extension. Bush's press secretary, Ari Fleischer, last week reiterated that the president views the weapons ban extension as "a reasonable step."

Bush's position on the issue is one of the few instances in which he has broken with the National Rifle Assn. The gun organization, which claims about 4 million members, is pressing Congress to let the ban lapse.

The White House shrugged off DeLay's comment.

"There are a lot of important issues on the congressional agenda," said Mercy Viana, a White House spokeswoman. "It's premature to speculate on future legislative debates while we are in the middle of current ones."

Feinstein, one of the chief sponsors of the 1994 law, took DeLay's statement as a challenge.

In a statement given through a spokesman, she said: "If the Republicans want to be the party in support of assault weapons, when the American people believe that they are the weapons of choice for drive-by shooters and grievance killers, let them be that party. I, for one, support reauthorization of the ban."

In 1999, California adopted a far-reaching ban on assault weapons, prohibiting the manufacture, sale or import of weapons including grenade launchers, semiautomatic pistols with a capacity of more than 10 rounds, semiautomatic rifles that use detachable magazines and guns with barrels that can be fitted with silencers.

In general, most Republicans in Congress have opposed new gun-control proposals in recent years, and most Democrats have supported them. But the issue frequently cuts across party lines. Many northeastern Republicans have supported gun control; many rural Democrats have opposed it.

The last major gun-control debate in Congress ended in stalemate in 1999, as lawmakers declined to tighten federal controls on firearm sales at gun shows. The Senate narrowly approved a bill regulating gun-show sales that year, weeks after the deadly gun rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado drew public attention to the issue. But the House did not.

Democrats sought to turn the issue to their benefit in the 2000 election, but they dropped it after their presidential candidate, Al Gore, appeared to lose key support in states where gun control is unpopular. Since then, congressional Democrats have allowed the issue to recede, while Republicans have pushed to give gun makers liability protection.

Whether the pending expiration of the assault weapons ban will change the legislative dynamic is unclear. The Washington Post quoted a DeLay spokesman as saying that the majority leader had no plans to bring up a bill to reauthorize the ban. The spokesman, Stuart Roy, did not return a phone message late Tuesday seeking comment.

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