Administration yields further on gun controls

April 19, 1991|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration made a second major concession on gun control yesterday in an effort to win congressional approval of President Bush's anti-crime bill.

Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh said Mr. Bush might accept a permanent ban on some domestic semiautomatic assault weapons if Congress adopted the president's anti-crime bill. Mr. Bush has already prohibited importing some foreign semiautomatic weapons.

Mr. Thornburgh's comments, at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, followed an administration decision last month in which officials said they would be willing to consider supporting a separate bill that would require a seven-day waiting period for handgun purchases in return for support of the president's anti-crime bill.

That decision came after former President Ronald Reagan endorsed the bill, which is named after James S. Brady, the former president's press secretary, who was severely wounded in the assassination attempt on Mr. Reagan in 1981.

The administration's shift on gun control has created optimism on Capitol Hill that a deal is likely, congressional aides said yesterday.

The anti-crime bill includes an array of criminal justice measures, but administration officials are concentrating on three elements.

These would expand the number of federal crimes punishable by the death penalty, limit appeals by death row inmates and lift restrictions on the use of illegally obtained evidence in criminal trials.

"A crime bill incorporating the major features the president has proposed would create a situation where we would look much more favorably on allied legislation," said Mr. Thornburgh, referring to both the handgun waiting period and a ban on semiautomatic assault weapons.

But Mr. Thornburgh declined to endorse a specific deal. "I don't write blank checks," he told Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., the panel's chairman.

And the attorney general warned that the president was likely to veto any gun control measure adopted by Congress separately from his anti-crime legislation.

Mr. Biden, who has introduced his own anti-crime bill incorporating the ban on semiautomatic weapons, said he hoped to reconcile his differences with the administration. "Your willingness to moderate the administration's position on gun control measures paves the way for passage of the crime control bill," he said.

The Bush administration has already imposed an administrative ban on 43 foreign-made semiautomatic weapons.

The proposed legislative prohibition, prepared by Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., would go further by outlawing five domestic and four foreign-made semiautomatic guns.

Mr. DeConcini's bill was included in an anti-crime package passed by the Senate last year but was dropped by a conference committee.

The administration's ban on foreign-made semiautomatics has sought to prevent the importation of military-style weapons.

Mr. Bush's anti-crime bill incorporates some features that administration officials said would curb the use of weapons by violent criminals. These measures include banning ammunition-feeding devices for firing 15 rounds without reloading.

"Hunters do not need to shoot off dozens of rounds in a matter of seconds, and neither is such a spraying of bullets a necessary feature of firearms ownership for purposes of home protection," Mr. Thornburgh said.

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