A major political battle is brewing in Washington over whether to extend a 1994 law that bans 19 types of semi-automatic assault weapons. Supporters see the Assault Weapons Ban as one of the most important pieces of gun control legislation ever approved by Congress. Critics say the law is ineffective and unfairly violates the rights of gun owners. A gun debate could have a big impact on the 2004 presidential and congressional elections.
This most recent battle over gun control was set off by the leader of the Republican Majority in the House of Representatives, Congressman Tom Delay of Texas.
Congressman Delay recently said that most House members were willing to let the Assault Weapons Ban expire next year, a blow to gun control advocates who hail the 1994 law as one of the most successful efforts to restrict the use of military-style semi-automatic assault weapons. The law bans 19 types of weapons including AK-47 assault rifles and Uzi sub-machine guns.
Many, but not all opposition Democrats support extending the law next year. They are already mobilizing grassroots support to try and keep the Assault Weapons Ban in place.
New York Senator Charles Schumer has long been one of the Democrats' leading advocates on gun control laws. He recently cited a new report by the Congressional Research Service warning that loopholes in existing gun control laws could easily be exploited by international terrorists.
"The loopholes in the U.S. gun laws are a dream come true for terrorist groups like al-Qaida," he said. "Right now, if an al-Qaida operative living in the U.S. for a few months should decide to shoot up a mall, he could probably erroneously pass the background check or just go to a gun show where a background check is not needed and easily get a gun."
Supporters of the Assault Weapons Ban say the law has been effective in keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of criminals. They contend there has been a drop in the use of these assault-style weapons in violent crimes since the law was enacted.
The Justice Department says the impact of the law is uncertain and is conducting a study to determine its effectiveness.
Gun rights supporters insist the law violates their Constitutional right to bear arms and that the assault weapons banned under the law are not the types of guns preferred by criminals.
Wayne LaPierre is Executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association. He says the government should focus on prosecuting those who use guns in crimes instead of trying to keep certain types of weapons out of the hands of law-abiding citizens.
"Use the existing federal law, prosecute them 100 percent, confront the criminal directly and take them off the street and put them in jail.," he said "In places that have done that like Richmond, Virginia, with Project Exile, we have seen a dramatic reduction in crime in those cities and we have seen lives be saved."
But the National Rifle Association, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington and generally supportive of the Bush administration, also finds itself in the rare position of being at odds with the president over the Assault Weapons Ban.
As a presidential candidate in 2000, Mr. Bush said he supported extending the law when it expires next year.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer says there has been no change in the president's position.
"The president said in the 2000 campaign that he supported the assault weapons ban because he thought it was reasonable," he said. "He stated then that he would support the reauthorization of it and he states that again today."
Some Democrats accuse the president of publicly supporting the Assault Weapons Ban while secretly hoping that the Republican-controlled House will let the measure expire next year.
Democrats like Senator Schumer from New York say the president should actively urge congressional Republicans to support the Assault Weapons Ban.
"And so we are challenging the president," he said. "If you believe in what you said, if you are being honest and fair with the American people, you will publicly ask the House [of Representatives] to pass it and you will get the House to do it."
But there are a number of congressional Democrats, especially from rural areas and southern states, who would find it politically risky to support the Assault Weapons Ban during next year's elections. In fact, many analysts believe passage of the Assault Weapons Ban in 1994 helped Republicans take control of the House that year and that fallout from the gun control debate may have hurt Vice President Al Gore's presidential bid in 2000.