Assault-weapon fight's outcome still doubtful



WASHINGTON -- When advocates of the right to bear arms overwhelmingly lost an attempt to recall California state Sen. and former state Senate President David Roberti earlier this month in a special election, there was much talk about how voters were coming to their senses on the issue of gun control.

Roberti, a 28-year Democratic legislative veteran, was targeted by local members of the National Rifle Association and other gun enthusiasts because he had authored a 1989 act outlawing assault weapons after the killing of four children and the wounding of 34 others in a schoolyard in Stockton, Calif. Proponents of the recall candidly acknowledged that they hoped a successful recall would be a warning to other legislators who crossed the NRA and other Second Amendment stalwarts.

Other factors, however, were importantly involved in the recall's defeat. One was the fact that Roberti was already subject to a new term-limits law and would be leaving the state Senate at the end of this year anyway. Another was the price tag to taxpayers of an estimated $800,000 for the special election, forced by the gathering of sufficient recall petitions. Polls showed that voters overwhelmingly viewed that expense as a waste, especially in light of Roberti's imminent departure from that office.

In spite of Roberti's victory, however, and enactment earlier this year of the Brady bill requiring a waiting period for the sale of handguns, the gun lobby remains a potent political force. A national ban on 19 types of semiautomatic assault weapons is facing defeat when it comes to the floor of the House of Representatives next week.

Although the House Judiciary Committee has just voted, 20-15, to recommend passage of the ban, urged by President Clinton and opposed by the NRA, the chief supporters of the legislation acknowledge that right now they may be 15 or 20 votes short of passing it. A similar ban has already passed the Senate as part of an overall crime bill.

President Clinton has thrown his support behind the ban and a few days ago he brought family members of victims of assault-weapon shootings to the Rose Garden to help put a human face on the issue. The committee vote came after a highly emotional subcommittee hearing at which some of them told of their losses and pleaded for passage, as subcommittee members debated over how effective a ban would be in fighting crime. Democratic Rep. Charles Schumer of New York displayed confiscated assault weapons of the sort that would be barred, and Republican Rep. F. James Senstenbrenner of Wisconsin countered that assault weapons were used in less than 1 percent of killings in the country.

Susan Whitmore of Handgun Control Inc., the principal anti-gun lobby, notes that inasmuch as there are 200 million guns of all kinds in circulation in this country, even if no more than 1 percent of them are assault weapons, it would mean 2 million of them, with, she claims, a majority in the hands of individuals who are mentally deranged or have drug trafficking or other criminal records. She also cites statistics from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms indicating that nearly 10 percent of all guns traced to crime from 1988 to 1991 were assault weapons.

Although the pending legislation specifically exempts about 650 rifles and shotguns used for sports or legitimate hunting purposes and assault weapons currently owned, the NRA continues to argue that the bill will threaten the rights of responsible gun owners.

But BATF Director John Magaw says "assault weapons are eight times more popular with criminals than with knowledgeable gun owners" and should not "be sold on the open market if we claim to be serious about addressing gun-related violence."

Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen and Attorney General Janet Reno, along with relatives of the victims, have been lobbying House fence-straddlers all this week but the outcome remains in doubt. The gun lobby continues to throw its weight around, especially in Western and Southern states where gun ownership traditionally has been cherished and defended, even as the carnage goes on.

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