WASHINGTON – The demise of Republican gun legislation in the Senate and a stalemate over renewing the assault-style weapons ban thrusts gun control squarely into the fall presidential campaign, both sides in the debate say.
The Senate voted 90-8 on Tuesday to scuttle a GOP-sponsored bill that would have given gunmakers liability protection against lawsuits. The vote came after Democrats gained enough Republican support to amend the bill to extend the assault-weapons ban and to require background checks for gun show purchases.
Those provisions caused the National Rifle Association (search) to withdraw its support for the bill, and Senate Republican leaders decided to kill it.
The vote gave Democrats and gun control advocates an unexpected victory in the GOP-controlled Congress and all but eliminated any chance for passage this year of gun legislation. The gunmaker liability bill was a priority for President Bush. It would have shielded gunmakers from suits stemming from use of a gun in a crime.
Bush and Senate Democrats, including Bush's likely Democratic challenger, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (search), support reauthorization of the assault weapons ban but there is no sure way of getting House approval before the ban expires in September. The end of the ban would mean the gun industry could resume making, importing and selling 19 types of military-style semiautomatic weapons.
"You can be sure it's going to be in the presidential campaign as a bona fide issue as to whether the American people want AK-47s, street sweepers and Uzis sold once again," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., one of the chief sponsors of the assault weapons ban.
Liberals say Republicans don't care if "weapons of war" can once again get in the hands of people willing to kill innocent Americans, while conservatives say Democrats want to limit gun ownership by law-abiding Americans.
"The U.S. Senate had its vote today. Law-abiding gun owners will have their turn to vote in November," Wayne LaPierre (search) and Chris Cox (search), the National Rifle Association's executive vice president and the group's chief lobbyist, said in a joint statement.
Democrats had hoped to use a GOP bill preventing lawsuits against gun manufacturers and distributors as a vehicle for renewing the 10-year-old ban against the manufacture, importation and sale of military style semiautomatic weapons.
However, Senate Republicans voted overwhelmingly against their own bill Tuesday after a small number of GOP senators defied their Republican leaders, the White House and the NRA by joining with Democrats in attaching the assault weapons ban and other Democratic amendments to the legislation.
The NRA, a political juggernaut because of its 4 million members, e-mailed other senators in both parties after those votes urging them to vote against the bill because of the Democratic amendments.
"We will not send that to the president," said GOP Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, chief sponsor of the gunmaker immunity bill. He wound up voting against his own bill after the Democratic amendments were attached.
The White House supports reauthorizing the ban, but wanted the Senate to move it as a separate bill instead of attaching it to the gunmaker immunity bill. The Republican-controlled House already has said it wouldn't vote for the reauthorization, and the Bush administration predicted combining the two would simply lead to the GOP legislation's failure.
"Some are simply more interested in undermining that piece of legislation than they are in necessarily getting the other legislation passed," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
Democrats, who were not particularly upset that the gunmaker immunity bill failed, say that doesn't necessarily mean that the assault weapons ban can't make it through Congress, especially since they now have the Senate on record as supporting the assault weapons ban by a 52-47 vote.
"If we don't get this assault weapons legislation signed into law and it lapses, we will come back with another piece," Feinstein said.
Democrats say the ban has worked, pointing to Justice Department data showing the proportion of banned assault weapons traced to crimes has dropped by 65.8% since 1995. In 1995, the first year that the ban went into effect, assault weapons represented 3.57 percent of all crime guns recovered from crimes. By 2002, assault weapons represented only 1.22 percent of the number of guns used in crimes, Feinstein said.
But Republicans call those numbers misleading and say they will fight against any reauthorization in the Senate.