SEATTLE -- Hoping to achieve nationwide what he so far has been unable to do at home, Gov. William Donald Schaefer has called on President Bush and Congress to impose a federal ban on high-powered assault-style weapons.
Schaefer, clutching an automatic Uzi handgun, made his plea yesterday at a news conference here where the National Governors' Association is holding its 83rd summer conference.
Schaefer, who appeared before television cameras and reporters with the governors of Delaware and New Jersey, said assault weapons have no legitimate purpose.
"I don't think you use these for hunting pigeons," said Schaefer, nodding toward a row of 11 automatic firearms confiscated by the Washington State Patrol and on loan for the news briefing.
Schaefer and Govs. Michael N. Castle of Delaware and Jim Florio of New Jersey issued a letter asking Bush to work with the states to develop a policy "to solve this national problem."
Although more than 40 state chief executives were meeting here for the conference that was to end today, aides to the three anti-assault weapon governors were able to solicit only two other signatures on the Bush letter.
Hawaii Gov. John Waihee agreed to sign the letter and Connecticut Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., who is not attending the NGA meeting, said he will support the effort, according to Kenneth E. Mannella, director of Schaefer's Washington office.
At a hearing of the NGA Committee on Justice and Public Safety, Schaefer proposed a similar resolution urging states to ban the sale and possession of assault weapons. As expected, the panel elected to set aside Schaefer's resolution for study and did not act upon it.
Schaefer said he was not troubled by the committee's decision and proposed the resolution only as a way to get fellow governors to begin thinking about the issue.
The NGA is a consensus-building organization that rarely tackles controversial issues head on. Instead, it attempts to develop middle-ground policy positions as proposed guidelines for how Congress and federal agencies deal with state issues.
Schaefer said he never expected to see the NGA formally take up the assault-weapons issue. "My purpose is to call it to public attention," he said.
Schaefer said many governors -- particularly those from rural states away from the East Coast -- are not concerned about automatic firearms because they have been fortunate not to experience crimes involving the weapons.
Asked if they would support a nationwide ban on assault weapons, many governors at the NGA conference tried to duck the questions.
West Virginia Gov. Gaston Caperton, a close friend of Schaefer's, said he was not aware of Schaefer's letter to Bush or the proposed resolution and could not comment on how he would stand. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, considered by many pundits to be a leading possibility for the Democratic presidential nomination next year, avoided the question with a smile. And aides for Washington Gov. Booth Gardner, the NGA chairman and conference host, said he did not have an opinion on the proposed ban because it has not been an issue in the Pacific Northwest.
Schaefer said that 80,000 assault-type weapons were sold in the United States last year and that they increasingly are being used in illegal activities. He said 13 of every 100 guns seized in Maryland are of the type he wants to outlaw. Schaefer said groups such as the National Rifle Association have succeeded in convincing many voters and lawmakers that attempts to ban assault weapons are also attempts to infringe upon an individual's constitutional right to bear arms.
"I had a terrible time in the legislature," Schaefer told reporters yesterday. "We had people on the Eastern Shore and in Western Maryland who said I was against firearms and against the world."
Schaefer's attempt to outlaw so-called Saturday Night Specials was successful during his first term as governor. However, efforts to restrict the sale and possession of assault-type guns were stymied during the last session when the governor's weapons bills died in a Senate committee.
Florio, who in 1990 signed into law one of the nation's strongest anti-assault weapons measures, said he is not impressed with constitutional arguments regarding arms when the issue is automatic firearms.
"The next thing they'll say is there is a constitutional right to own a SCUD missile in your back yard," he said.
Schaefer nemesis Richard Manning, an NRA lobbyist familiar in Maryland State House circles, showed up at yesterday's news conference and afterward told reporters the move to ban assault weapons is based mostly in hysteria.
Manning said a study of weapons seized in New Jersey since that state's strict ban went into effect in May 1990 revealed that 50 to 60 of the so-called assault firearms had been confiscated.
"In a state with 50,000 violent crimes, that's not much," Manning said.
Manning also found fault with the way automatic weapons were displayed at Schaefer's news conference. Washington police said all the weapons had been examined twice to make sure the firing pins were removed and that they could not be fired.
Nevertheless, Manning said, the display -- which had the barrels aimed directly into the crowd of reporters -- was contrary to accepted guidelines for handling guns.