San Diego Union Tribune

September 13, 2004

Weapons ban demise likely; senator vows not to give up


WASHINGTON The federal assault-weapons ban the 10-year-old law that outlawed the sort of guns used in the Columbine school shooting is almost certain to expire today.

What that means is difficult to sort out: A federal report indicates the data are too conflicting to conclude that bans help curb gun violence.

The assault-weapons ban is one of the signature achievements of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who stunned fellow senators in 1993 when she recalled putting her "finger through a bullet hole trying to get a pulse" after the fatal 1978 shooting of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk.

The ban is nearly synonymous with the senator's name. On Feinstein's office wall hangs a framed newspaper story about the ban's passage in November 1993. For more than a year, she has pushed Congress and the White House to keep it alive, with no success.

The law expires today unless Congress passes her bill that would make it permanent, which seems all but impossible.

"The assault-weapons ban will be history," Feinstein told her Senate colleagues in a speech Wednesday.

The ban outlaws the sale, manufacture and importation of 19 types of semiautomatic weapons with military features, including bayonet mounts, collapsible stocks and clips with more than 10 bullets. Among the weapons banned were the Uzi, the Colt AR-15 and the Intratec Tec-9.

The last was the weapon used by one of the shooters in Colorado's Columbine High School massacre. Because the ban allowed the sale of existing weapons, one of the teenage shooters acquired the weapon at a gun show.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence points to a 1999 National Institute of Justice study that found assault weapons used in crimes dropped by one-fifth in the year after enactment of the 1994 ban, and that no assault weapons were used to kill police officers in the two years following it. A Brady Campaign study last March found that, since the ban, the percentage of assault weapons used in crimes has dropped from 4.8 percent to 1.6 percent.

"The Uzi, the Tec-9 all those guns have cachet in the criminal world," said Elizabeth Haile, staff attorney with the campaign's sister group, the Brady Center. "If the ban expires . . . all the manufacturers will start pumping these guns out again, and they'll be out on the streets."

Gun owners' groups say the law merely banned "cosmetic" accessories on guns, and has had no effect on crime. Similar weapons continue to be easily available because manufacturers can do away with banned accessories and legally create nearly identical guns with the same firepower and accuracy.

An October report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reviewed 51 studies that evaluated the effects of different firearms laws on violence. Certain studies indicated that bans decreased violence, but others indicated violence increased, the report said.

"The sun's going to rise and set on Tuesday, just like it will on Monday," said Chris W. Cox, the National Rifle Association's chief lobbyist. "The mass hysteria the gun-control community is pushing about a flood of firearms is nothing more than a desperate attempt to push a rejected political agenda."

President Bush embraced the ban during his 2000 campaign and said he would push for its renewal. Republican leaders refused to bring the matter to a vote, and Bush has not pressed for action.

"The president has steadfastly refused to put his money where his mouth is and help us renew the ban," Feinstein said Wednesday.

White House deputy press secretary Trent Duffy said the president continues to support the law, but that "leaders of Congress decide the schedule of . . . legislation."

Although a majority of Americans support the law one November Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 78 percent want to keep the ban some Democrats also might want to avoid a vote.

Gun control played a prominent role in the 2000 presidential election and is believed to have hurt Democrats holding seats in states with high gun ownership. Many analysts believe the issue helped Bush win the election.

California's 1989 assault-weapons ban outlawed certain semiautomatic firearms by model and manufacturer, and a 1999 state law banned "generic" characteristics and large ammunition magazines. Although the law is the nation's toughest, law enforcement officials say it will be weakened by assault weapons coming in from states without such laws. Gun-rights advocates dismiss the concern as overblown.

Regardless, should the federal ban expire today, Feinstein will write legislation to re-enact the law.

Said Feinstein spokesman Howard Gantman: "She's not going to give up."