Monday at midnight, a decade-long federal ban against the sale of certain semi-automatic assault weapons will expire. That is, if Congress doesn't present a bill for President Bush to sign authorizing an extension of the law. According to a poll released last week by the National Annenberg Election Survey, 68 percent, more than two-thirds of Americans, support extending the ban, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994. The law included a "sunset" clause that said it would automatically expire in 10 years if not renewed by Congress. Republican leaders are counting on it to expire, with the support of the powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association. At a news conference in Washington last week, dozens of police officials, gun control advocates and victims of gun violence gathered to voice their concerns.
"Unless Congress acts, the firearms of choice for terrorists, drug dealers, gang members and thugs will be back on our streets, where once again our officers will be outgunned by criminals," said Joe Polisar, President of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
He spoke out against the firearms that will once again be made available on American streets, 19 weapons specifically, including AK-47s, Uzis, and TEC-9s. These are guns designed for the military, featuring clips that can fire up to 100 rounds of ammunition and easily penetrate a policeman's bulletproof vest. Alabama Policeman Michael Colins says he lost three of his fellow officers in a deadly spray from an assault weapon.
"They were designed for the military. If they're going to shoot us, they do shoot in our streets," he added. "We have people getting shot with assault weapons now."
President Bush has said that he would sign a bill extending the semiautomatic assault weapons ban if Congress asked him to do so. But critics of the president, like California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, say he needs to do more.
"We have cried out in vain. There has been no response from the White House," she said.
Opponents say the ban threatens their right to bear arms guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and that it has been ineffective in combating crime. NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre maintains that "the guns on the ban list are no different than the guns not on the ban list."
"The whole thing is cosmetic nonsense and it should be allowed to sunset," he added.
In Norfolk, Virginia, Robert Marcus, owner of Bob's Gun Shop, agrees. His customers include military employees, hunters and target shooters.
Marcus: There is no doubt that guns that have been brought out are cosmetically different from the ones that are banned.
Rupli: How are they cosmetically different?
Marcus: Certain features were changed like bayonet lugs were removed or collapse-able stocks were eliminated, things of that nature.
Supporters of the ban say the fact that similar weapons can be sold legally means the measure should be strengthened, not abandoned. But gun shop owner Robert Marcus says his customers are looking forward to midnight on Monday and the expiration of the ban.
"Oh, yes. There's a lot of interest in seeing this go away," he said. "The overall feeling that most of our customers recognize is that this was something that wasn't a good enough law to put on the books permanently and with a ten-year sunset [clause], it needs to go away."
In 1999, a Justice Department Study found that just 1.6 percent of the firearms used in crimes in 1994 were from the list of banned assault weapons. This was a marked reduction from five years before, when assault weapons accounted for 4.8 percent of the guns used in crimes.
Neither Republicans nor Democrats have made the assault weapons debate a hot campaign issue this year. House Majority leader Tom DeLay said Congress would not even consider extending the ban.
"There are not the votes to pass the bill. If the president asked me I would tell him the same thing," said Mr. DeLay.
Many Democrats are staying out of the debate because they believe support for gun control measures cost their party the White House four years ago and helped give Republicans control of both houses of the U.S. Congress. As midnight approaches, Internet websites run by gun rights groups are displaying clocks counting down the minutes until the end of the ban. Meanwhile, gun control advocates are invoking the war on terror in an effort to re-authorize the law. A newspaper ad picturing Osama bin Laden with an assault rifle reads, "The terrorists of 9/11 can hardly wait for 9/13."