WASHINGTON – Democrats challenged President Bush (search) on Wednesday to overcome resistance within his own party to extending an assault weapons ban due to expire next year.
"If the bill dies we will lay it at the president's doorstep," Sen. Charles Schumer (search), D-N.Y., said a day after House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search) told reporters that the 1994 law banning the manufacture of 19 types of common military-style assault weapons would not be renewed.
Schumer said the gun bill would be an issue in the 2004 election, a development that could pose problems for Democrats who represent districts with strong gun rights sentiment. Bush has handled the issue cautiously, balancing the desires of his gun-rights base and the concerns of suburban voters, particularly women, who favor some limitations. The assault ban vote was a campaign topic in 1994, the year Republicans recaptured the House after spending 40 years in the minority.
Bush, taking a position at odds with the National Rifle Association, has voiced support for extending the ban, and White House spokesman Ari Fleischer on Wednesday said that support would carry weight in Congress.
"This is a matter that the House has to work out, of course, by listening to the will of its members, but the president's position is clear on it," Fleischer said. "When the president states his position like that, it helps get the message to the Congress."
However, Republicans with ties to the White House said Bush does not plan to aggressively lobby lawmakers to extend the ban. That strategy would allow him to publicly oppose the National Rifle Association without turning the full force of the White House against a powerful, GOP-leaning interest group.
Fleischer would not say whether Bush would pressure DeLay to bring such a bill up for a vote. DeLay, R-Texas, on Tuesday indicated that there would be no effort to renew the current law before it expires on Sept. 13, 2004. "The votes in the House are not there to reauthorize it," he said.
"The real question is will the president weigh in and ask the leaders to schedule a vote," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., who as a senior adviser to President Clinton played a key role in guiding the 1994 legislation through Congress.
Emanuel stressed that gun control was only one of several issues affecting the 1994 election and that gun control advocacy has worked for Democratic candidates -- among them Sen. Dick Durbin in Illinois and former Sen. Robert Torricelli in New Jersey in 1996.
But Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the longest-serving lawmaker in the House and a strong gun rights advocate, said the assault weapon ban passed the House on a 216-214 vote in 1994 mainly because of the hard work of then-Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., and the White House. Foley lost his seat and the White House lost the House in 1994, he noted.
"It's unnecessary and if it came up I don't think I would support it," Dingell said.
In 1994, 77 Democrats, many from rural areas, voted against the weapons ban, while 38 Republicans voted for it. The Senate vote was 56-43, with nine Democrats opposed and 10 Republicans favoring.
The 1994 law, sponsored by Schumer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., banned the manufacture of 19 assault weapons while protecting some 670 hunting and other recreational rifles. Supporters say that in 1993 assault weapons accounted for 8.2 percent of all guns used in crimes, but by the end of 1996 the proportion had fallen to 3.2 percent.
Feinstein and Schumer have introduced legislation to make the 1994 ban permanent and address a provision that allows foreign companies to sell high-capacity ammunition magazines in this country.
Opponents of gun control legislation argue that the answer to gun violence is not to pass more laws but to enforce existing laws aimed at criminal gun use.
But in a report issued Wednesday, the Americans for Gun Safety Foundation, a gun safety advocacy group, said that while federal prosecutors are going after street criminals possessing firearms, 20 of the 22 major federal gun laws are rarely prosecuted. Those include laws on gun trafficking, firearm theft, corrupt gun dealers and lying on criminal background checks.
Justice Department figures for 2000-02 show only 27 prosecutions of corrupt gun dealers, a major source for trafficking operations, and seven cases for illegally selling a gun to a minor, even though more than 30,000 gun crimes were committed by youths aged 17 and under, the group said.
Justice Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock, however, said prosecutors focus on the most serious gun crimes first and, overall, gun crime prosecutions were up 38 percent this year compared with the year before.
"There should be no doubt: The Justice Department is working hard to enforce all federal firearms laws and lock up those who criminally misuse guns," Comstock said.