Democratic lawmakers, joined by some Republicans, have criticized the congressional Republican leadership for allowing a 10-year-old ban on assault weapons to expire, an issue that has been thrust anew into the public spotlight and become a focus of the presidential election campaign. Lawmakers assert that the expiration of the ban will lead to more deaths by gunfire on the streets of America.
Standing in front of the U.S. Capitol building, the lawmakers decried what they call an irresponsible decision by Republicans in control of Congress not to allow a vote on reauthorizing legislation banning 19 types of semi-automatic assault weapons, including AK-47's and Uzi machineguns.
With support from some key House Republicans, Democrats attempted unsuccessfully to move a bill to the floor of the House of Representatives that would have renewed the weapons ban.
Carolyn McCarthy is a Democrat from New York whose husband was killed and son was seriously wounded in an incident in 1993 on a New York railroad car.
"I know the effect it [expiration of the ban] is going to have in this country as it comes down the road," she said. "I know there are going to be a lot more families that are going to be unfortunately in the same situation I was in. And we're going to see a lot more of our police officers unfortunately gunned down."
She was joined by Republican Congressman Michael Castle, who criticized Republican House and Senate leaders for not allowing a bill extending the ban to come to a vote.
"We have been pleading with the congressional leadership to expand this ban, but the reality is they are not going to do it," he said. "My [Republican] majority leader says we don't have the votes. To him, I say let the will of the House dictate that. The Senate [Republican] majority leader says the expiration of the ban reflects the will of the American people. To him I say, read the polls and really talk to the American people."
The assault weapon ban was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994 after it was approved by Congress, and had to be reauthorized within 10 years.
One of the Republican co-sponsors of the original weapons ban at the time was Republican Congressman Christopher Shays.
"Americans have a right to bear arms, and their government has a moral responsibility to regulate that right," he said. "[But] I would also say that my [Republican] leadership is playing Russian roulette with this issue. This is simply Russian roulette. There will be, without question, a horrific crime committed without an assault weapon, and then every member of Congress is going to have to ask themselves where were they on this issue?"
Congressman Shays recalled that former Republican President Ronald Reagan had lobbied for the original assault weapons ban before it was approved in 1994, calling it an absolutely necessary piece of legislation.
Congresswoman McCarthy told reporters a key Republican-controlled committee declined to even consider a bill in 2003 seeking to close loopholes in the existing weapons ban, which have been cited by critics as a reason to let the legislation lapse.
President Bush said he favored the ban on assault weapons. However, facing tough questions from reporters, presidential spokesman Scott McClellan acknowledged the White House had not taken any major action to urge Congress to act.
The National Rifle Association (NRA), one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington and heavily pro-Republican, supported an end to the assault ban, saying its expiration will not lead to an increase in crime.
Opponents of the assault weapons ban say it had little real effect, as gun manufacturers got around the legislation by developing firearms that didn't have any of the features banned by federal law, but that still retained the rapid-fire capability of semi-automatic weapons.
Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry has seized on the weapons ban issue as part of his attempt to improve his standing in public opinion polls in the weeks before the November presidential vote.