The national ban on semi-automatic assault weapons, singed into law by President Clinton in 1994, is set to expire Monday unless Congress acts to extend the ban. That looks unlikely, with neither house of Congress nor President Bush advancing the issue.
The assault weapons ban - which applies to 19 types of weapons, as well as ammunition clips holding more than 10 rounds – has been touted by supporters as a success, with gun murder rates having fallen dramatically over the past decade (though it’s unclear how much of that is directly tied to the weapons ban). While gun manufacturers have used loopholes to create legal "knockoffs" of banned weapons - including the kind used by the D.C. snipers – and the NRA has aggressively lobbied against the ban, it remains popular with the public. According to a poll released Monday by the National Annenberg Election Survey, two-thirds of Americans want the ban extended – including about 57 percent of those with guns in their home. As a Wednesday staff editorial in USA Today argued:
"The law's popularity is evident in the way Bush and lawmakers are dodging outright support for lifting the ban. Bush, who endorsed the ban during his 2000 campaign, says he'll sign an extension when Congress sends him legislation. Yet, he has not prodded lawmakers to pass a bill as he did to win such priorities as his tax cuts, a Medicare drug benefit and the Iraq war resolution."
The Senate did show some support for extending the ban back in March, when it voted to do so as an amendment to a bill preventing gun manufacturers from liability. But the NRA then withdrew its support for the measure, the liability bill died, and the Senate has not revived the issue. The House has avoided the subject, with Dennis Hastert saying he’s not inclined to schedule a vote until the Senate has acted.
Then there’s George Bush. As a presidential candidate in 2000, he promised to extend the weapons ban, and a White House spokesperson told the Washington Post Tuesday that the president still "supports the reauthorization of the current ban." But that’s easy to say with the knowledge that Congress won’t be sending a reauthorization to your desk, and Bush has refrained from pushing the measure along. In the words of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a strong supporter of the ban:
"The president has done nothing. His party is in control and is controlled by the gun industry. We need a president who doesn't want assault weapons on our streets."
The problem is, the National Rifle Association wants assault weapons on our streets. Even if Bush is sincere in wanting to extend the ban, the NRA has threatened to withdraw its support for him. Richard Feldman, a lobbyist for gun manufacturers, told the San Francisco Chronicle it would be "close to his political death" if Bush signed an extension before the election, as the NRA and its fellow travelers would stay away from the polls. And the NRA has withheld its endorsement so far, waiting to make sure Bush plays ball. Feldman said that doesn’t preclude future action by Bush:
"Come January, it's a different story. Then, if he's re-elected, he'd be forced to sign the bill, if he gets a clean one that just contains an extension of the existing law."
But by that time, there will be plenty of new semi-automatic weapons on the street, as gun enthusiasts are already gearing up for the expiration. As the Post reports, major gun manufacturers are planning to bring back now-banned models, and are offering to sell 15-round magazines starting Sept. 14. Even the Israeli maker of the notorious Uzi is reportedly ready to introduce its guns to the U.S. once the ban is no longer in effect. Robert Ricker, a former leader of the American Shooting Sports Council, told the Post there will be a "buying frenzy" starting next week, helped along by the notion that a ban could be reinstituted at any point.
Ironically, one of the NRA’s arguments against the weapons ban is its admittedly arbitrary nature, which bans the aforementioned 19 guns while allowing others no less dangerous. That’s true, as USA Today argues:
"The NRA is right. But the solution is to eliminate the loopholes, not the law. California has shown the way by banning the sale of large ammo clips and weapons with grenade launchers, bayonet mounts or other features that turn rifles into killing machines. Washington won't follow until it fears a return of dangerous weapons on the street more than the gun lobby."
There’s only five days left until those weapons begin their return to the legal market.