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A Wall of Firepower

March 04, 2004

Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Assn.'s executive vice president, fired off an ominous e-mail Tuesday afternoon. Because legislation to shield gun manufacturers from lawsuits also extended the assault weapons ban, he threatened senators on the floor of the chamber who were ready to say aye.

"This vote," he warned, "will be used in our future ... endorsements ... for the U.S. Senate."

Within minutes, as that message scrolled across the senators' pagers, the deal -- months and many horse trades in the making -- went down in flames.

A balder demonstration of one group's muscle in the Senate hasn't been seen for a while. But the bill's sudden death also presents an opportunity for moderates -- if they have the guts to take it.

The bill before senators was a classic devil's deal. It would have shielded gun makers from virtually all civil damage claims resulting from the death and mayhem their products cause. No other industry gets such special treatment under law. The NRA liked that part of the legislation, of course.

But some Democrats and Republicans had added amendments to renew the federal ban on assault guns and require background checks on firearms buyers at gun shows. Polls show that most Americans strongly support these sensible provisions.

With something that pro- and anti-gun advocates really wanted and something that they'd have to hold their nose to support, the final package covered no one with glory. But that's not the point.

The NRA's clout is. Nose counts before LaPierre's e-mail predicted squeaker Senate approval for the measure. The final vote, however, was 90 to 8 to kill the bill. Even Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), who had introduced the immunity legislation and fought hard for its approval, walked away once LaPierre challenged the senators.

Now what? If the 10-year-old assault gun ban expires in September, look for Uzis at a gun store near you, weapons capable of taking out an entire schoolyard or the morning line of caffeine hounds at Starbucks.

When pushed, President Bush will say he supports extending the assault gun ban. However, he saved his enthusiasm for Craig's original immunity measure. Like the NRA, he exhorted lawmakers in recent days to pass a "clean" bill, without the assault-gun ban and gun-show amendments.

Democrats and moderate Republicans, who tremble at the sort of ballot-box vengeance that LaPierre threatened, had all but abandoned reasonable gun legislation in recent years. At the very least, Tuesday's demonstration of the NRA's power over our elected representatives should galvanize the brave hearts among them, like Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), to try again to pass the protections that Americans so clearly want.

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