USA: "Irking N.R.A., Bush Supports Ban on Assault Weapons"


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cuchulainn
May 8, 2003, 10:08 AM
from the New York Times

http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/08/politics/08GUNS.html?pagewanted=2&ei=5062&en=28ecd5c4fdd89306&ex=1052971200&partner=GOOGLEIrking N.R.A., Bush Supports Ban on Assault Weapons

By ERIC LICHTBLAU

WASHINGTON, May 7 — President Bush and the National Rifle Association, long regarded as staunch allies, find themselves unlikely adversaries over one of the most significant pieces of gun-control legislation in the last decade, a ban on semiautomatic assault weapons.

At issue is a measure to be introduced by Senate Democrats on Thursday to continue the ban. Groundbreaking 1994 legislation outlawing the sale and possession of such firearms will expire next year unless Congress extends it, and many gun-rights groups have made it their top priority to fight it. Even some advocates of gun control say the prohibition has been largely ineffective because of its loopholes.

Despite those concerns, the White House says Mr. Bush supports the extension of the current law — a position that has put him in opposition to the N.R.A. and left many gun owners angry and dumbfounded.

"This is a president who has been so good on the Second Amendment that it's just unbelievable to gun owners that he would really sign the ban," said Grover G. Norquist, a leading conservative and an N.R.A. board member who opposes the weapons ban. "I don't think it's sunk in for a lot of people yet."

Advocates on both sides of the issue say the White House appears to have made a bold political calculation: that the risk of alienating a core constituency is outweighed by appearing independent of the gun lobby, sticking to a campaign promise and supporting a measure that has broad popular appeal. The president has claimed the middle road — supporting an extension of the current ban but not endorsing the stronger measures that gun-control supporters say would outlaw many "copycat" assault weapons. That position has forced Democrats in the Senate to reject plans for a more ambitious weapons ban.

Mr. Bush's position "cuts against the N.R.A.'s position," said Michael Franc, vice president of government relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation, "and it will put the president — for one of the first times since he signed the campaign finance reform bill — at odds with his own political base."

"He's built up enough positive political capital in other areas that it won't be fatal," Mr. Franc added, but the issue could hurt Mr. Bush in Middle America, considered critical to his re-election chances in 2004.

The assault-weapons issue puts the president in a precarious political spot. When Mr. Bush was campaigning for president in 2000, a top N.R.A. official boasted that the group's relationship with Mr. Bush was so "unbelievably friendly" that the N.R.A. could practically claim a seat at the White House. The N.R.A. has been a major donor to Mr. Bush, and the gun lobby and the Bush administration have been in lock step on most major gun issues, including the current push to limit lawsuits against gun manufacturers. The Justice Department under Attorney General John Ashcroft has been a particularly close ally of the gun lobby, pushing an expanded view of gun rights under the Second Amendment and initiating law enforcement changes sought by the N.R.A.

But White House officials said the assault-weapons ban was one case in which the president and the N.R.A. did not see eye to eye.

"There are times when we agree and there are times when we disagree," said Scott McClellan, a White House spokesman. "The president makes decisions based on what he believes is the right policy for Americans." Mr. McClellan added that the ban was put in place as a way of deterring crime and that Mr. Bush "felt it was reasonable."

The White House position has heartened gun-control advocates. Matt Bennett, a spokesman for Americans for Gun Safety, which supports an extension of the weapons ban, said, "I think Bush realizes that, number one, this is the right thing to do, number two, he promised to do this in the 2000 campaign, and number three, he knows that it's good politics and this is an extremely popular measure."

The N.R.A. has maintained a polite civility toward the White House, even though it insists the ban is a violation of the Second Amendment that deprives hunters and sportsmen of many high-powered rifles.

Chris W. Cox, the N.R.A's chief lobbyist, said in an interview that while the defeat of the assault-weapons ban would be one of the N.R.A's top priorities, the group's focus would be on convincing members of Congress to vote against it so that it never reaches Mr. Bush's desk. "Do we agree with the administration's position on this? No, we don't, but the real fight is going to be not at that level, but in Congress," he said.

A bill will be introduced in the Senate on Thursday by Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, and Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, that would extend the ban for 10 years in much the same form it exists today. House Democrats expect to introduce a toughened version of the bill next week. That version, rejected by Senate Democrats as too politically risky, would significantly expand the class of banned weapons.

Mr. Schumer said he believed Mr. Bush's support could be critical in what he predicted would be a hard-fought campaign to renew the assault-weapons measure, which bans 19 types of firearms and others that meet certain criteria.

"We hope the president will not just say he supports the ban but will work to get it passed," Mr. Schumer said in an interview. "This will be a good measure of the compassion in his compassionate conservatism."

Senate Democrats ultimately decided that a stronger version of the ban would not pass muster with the White House and thus stood little chance of gaining passage, officials said. As a result, the Senate proposal will not specifically ban the Bushmaster rifle type that was used in last year's Washington-area sniper attacks. The House version would, because it includes a broader definition of an assault rifle, officials said.

"I would like to strengthen the bill" beyond what will be introduced in the Senate on Thursday, Senator Feinstein said today. "But I don't want to lose the bill, and important to that is the president's support."

Mr. Schumer said that even with the White House's public support, "I am worried that the anti-gun-control forces in the administration will conspire to kill this measure in the dead of night without a vote."

He noted that Mr. Ashcroft gave a noncommittal response two months ago when he was asked before the Senate several times whether he would support the reauthorization of the assault-weapons ban.

Mr. Ashcroft said Justice Department studies had found that the ban's impact on gun violence was "uncertain," and he said more study was needed.

The question of the gun ban's impact over the last nine years will be a crucial point of debate.

A report due to be released soon by the Violence Policy Center — a liberal Washington group that supports an expansion of the ban — examined the killings of 211 law enforcement officers from 1998 to 2001 and found that one in five were done with assault weapons, often copycat models that did not fall under the 1994 ban.

"Unfortunately, the firearms industry has been very successful at evading the ban," Kristen Rand, the group's legislative director, said. "Assault weapons remain a huge public safety problem."

Gun-rights groups insist that the assault-weapons ban has had little or no impact in fighting crime, and they maintain that their opponents are wrong to depict high-powered rifles as the weapon of choice for gangs and rampage killers.

"None of these weapons are used for crimes, and the Democrats know that," Mr. Norquist said.

For many gun owners, the issue is visceral, and Mr. Bush's stance has made the debate more emotional.

"There are a lot of gun owners who worked hard to put President Bush in office, and there are a lot of gun owners who feel betrayed by him," said Angel Shamaya, an Arizona gun owner who runs a Web site called "keepandbeararms.com."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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Yanus
May 8, 2003, 11:53 AM
My prediction is that this bill will never see the light of day in the House as long as Tom DeLay runs the show. I think that the White House is gambling on just such an outcome.

Yanus

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