Saturday 24 May 2003
1994 ban on semi-automatics lurches toward expiry date, issue expected to play pivotal role in presidential election
WASHINGTON They go by names that suggest power and danger the "Streetsweeper," the TEC-9, the MAK90, the AK-47.
And that's exactly what these military-style assault weapons bring. The power to kill indiscriminately.
Now there is fear here that the bullet-spraying semi-automatic weapons are heading back to American streets.
The gun debate in the United States has moved back to the forefront as a 1994 ban on assault weapons lurches toward an expiry date and it promises to become a pivotal issue in the next presidential election.
U.S. President George W. Bush surprised many when he distanced himself from the powerful National Rifle Association during the 2000 campaign, advocating an extension of the assault-weapon ban that ends in September, 2004.
But there are signs here that Bush now appears to want to have it both ways, tacitly supporting the extension to court suburban support in key states, while doing nothing overtly to stop a move that could see Congress simply avoid a vote on the extension and let it die.
That would be a powerful nod-and-wink to the firearms lobby, which, by some accounts, poured $1.6 million into the 2000 Bush campaign.
"Does George W. Bush want to be known as the pro-assault weapon president?" said Joe Sudbay, the public policy director of the Washington-based Violence Policy Center.
"He may be trying to have it both ways now, but it will be pretty clear by Sept. 13, 2004. He either supports the extension or he doesn't ... he either extends it or he doesn't."
The 1994 law made it illegal to import, manufacture, transfer or possess 19 types of semi-automatic weapons, although the law was "grandfathered," meaning anyone who legally owned such weapons before that date could retain them.
Tom DeLay, the Texas Republican and House of Representatives majority leader, said last week he didn't believe the extension would come to a vote in the Republican-dominated House. DeLay's statement drew a surprising rebuke from the Republican Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, showing that the gun ban does not easily cut across Republican-Democrat lines in this country.
While many Democrats are fearful of defeat if they are targeted by the gun lobby in the coming elections, there are many Republicans representing so-called "soccer mom" suburban constituencies who could become electoral toast if they are seen to be backing a measure which would bring the deadly weapons legally back to the streets of America.
White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer said last week Bush has not had any change of heart from his 2000 campaign promise. But he offered no explanation as to why Bush has given no presidential muscle to the promise. He has not been shy about stumping the country pushing for his tax-cut proposals, but has said nothing publicly about assault weapons.
"The House does everything the president wants," New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer said. "He wants a dividends tax cut, they do it. He wants one bill or another, they jump. In fact ... they say `how high?' He's got to walk the walk (on guns). If the president wants this bill to come to his desk, it will. If the president doesn't, he can have his minions whisper to the House, `kill the bill,' and he'll never reach it."
In 1994, the ban passed the House by a mere two votes, but it has been something less than a rousing success, even the anti-gun lobby concedes.
Many weapons manufacturers simply cosmetically changed the specs on the weapons to circumvent the ban, cynically adding "AB" to their model numbers, indicating they were changed "after the ban."
In 2000, 28,653 died of gunshot wounds in the U.S.; 94 children and teens in Louisiana alone. The gun death rate during that year was 10.4 per 100,000 population.
The Violence Policy Center released a study last week indicating that 41 of 211 law enforcement officers gunned down in the line of duty between Jan. 1, 1998, and Dec. 31, 2001 almost one in five were felled by assault weapons.
During a three-week reign of terror last October, the Washington snipers used a modified Bushmaster assault rifle, an XM15 M4 A3. The company's sales have soared since 1994.
The teens behind the 1999 Columbine massacre used modified TEC-9s.
"There's not a dime's worth of difference in the performance characteristics between the guns on the banned list and the guns not on the banned list," said NRA executive vice-president Wayne LaPierre.
Anti-gun advocates want an even tougher ban to replace the 1994 law, but, right now, there is little hope in Washington the law will be improved. It is more a question of a dogged fight to keep the status quo.
Bryan Miller of Philadelphia knows something about fight and he doesn't buy the conventional Washington spin.
Miller joined the advocacy group CeaseFire PA after his brother, an FBI agent, was slain at District of Columbia police headquarters in 1994. It was a case of mistaken identity. The gunman, carrying a concealed TEC-9, was looking for the head of homicide. Mike Miller was in the "cold case" squad.
"He went the wrong way ... but somebody was going to die, anyway," Miller said. Since then, Miller has worked tirelessly to control guns in his country.
"These guns are ugly," he said in an interview. "We have tapes of those kids firing away in Columbine. We have families of victims and people like me who have lost loved ones to these guns.
"We have lots of support. And we are just getting started."