WASHINGTON — With a 10-year ban on assault weapons due to expire Monday, Congress is about to allow a remarkable reversal: once demonized semiautomatic weapons will again be sold to the public.
Around the nation, manufacturers now prohibited from selling the weapons are competing to reap the most out of their return. Beretta USA Corp. is offering two free large-volume magazines with the purchase of certain guns. ArmaLite Inc. is inviting gun buyers to start placing orders for rifles whose manufacture has been banned for 10 years.
Politicians who had only a few years ago responded to public pressure for controls on such weapons are keeping a cautious distance. President Bush says he supports extending the assault weapons ban, but he has not aggressively worked for legislation to extend it. John F. Kerry, his Democratic presidential opponent, voted this year to extend the ban, but the Massachusetts senator often talks about how he enjoys hunting and supports the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms.
California will still have what is considered one of the nation's toughest state laws against assault weapons, and bans in several other states also will remain in effect.
But Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton, who was in Washington this week lobbying for the ban's extension, said that the law's expiration would be felt "even in a state like California," because criminals would go out of state to buy assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines and bring them into California.
The 1994 ban, signed by President Clinton, outlawed making and importing 19 types of military-style semiautomatic assault weapons and others with similar features and the manufacture of ammunition magazines containing more than 10 rounds.The law imposed a ban on certain semiautomatic weapons, those that fire one bullet with each squeeze of the trigger but which sponsors of the ban said also allowed for rapid firing. Some pistols as well as rifles were covered by the ban.
The federal ban was a major achievement of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who pushed for it after a series of shootings, including a 1993 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 semiautomatics. The sale of newly manufactured versions of these weapons was banned by the 1994 law, although those made before Sept. 13, 1994, could still be bought and sold.
Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Texas), who at the time was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and waged an unsuccessful campaign to defeat the weapon ban, said then: "The people who hate guns are in the majority right now."
They apparently are not anymore. The ban fell to intense lobbying by the National Rifle Assn. and to fears among Democrats that gun-control advocacy was draining support from rural voters. Although polls indicate that Americans support the assault weapon ban, many Democrats believe that Al Gore's championing of gun control cost him the presidency in the tight 2000 race against George W. Bush.
The NRA contends that a decade of restricting semiautomatic weapons has done nothing to reduce crime -- and that removing the restrictions would do nothing to increase it.
"These guns were rarely used in crime before the ban. They were rarely used in crime during the ban. And, it's safe to say they will rarely be used in crime after the ban," said Chris W. Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist.
Feinstein this week blamed "the powerful, selfish NRA and its brutal lobbying tactics" for making the assault weapon ban "one more victim." But she vowed: "I do not intend to give up. Next year ... we will come back and back and back."
The gun makers are already coming back.
ArmaLite's invitation to gun buyers for orders for long-banned rifles promises "delivery immediately upon expiration of the current law."
Mark A. Westrom, president of Illinois-based ArmaLite, said, "There is a slight increase in interest, but not as much as even I expected," he said.
At Taurus, a Florida gun maker, executives are making plans to begin manufacturing ammunition magazines that hold up to 17 rounds.
Keeva Segal, Taurus' marketing manager, said he expected some "pent-up demand" for previously banned items. "But I don't think it will be people lined up at the door," he said.
The 1994 law allowed an estimated 1.5 million assault weapons owned before the ban took effect to remain in private hands and permitted the sale of millions of large-capacity ammunition magazines made before the ban took effect. Importing Uzis and AK-47s will remain illegal under an executive order issued by President George H.W. Bush in 1989.
An effort to extend the assault weapons ban won the approval of a majority of senators this year. The assault weapon ban was attached to an NRA-backed measure to shield gun makers and sellers from gun violence lawsuits. The NRA scuttled its bill once renewal of the assault weapon ban was attached.