Suit to challenge administration on gun law

Assault-weapons ban not enforced, activists say

March 18, 2004|By Kristina Herrndobler | Kristina Herrndobler,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Gun control activists plan to file a lawsuit today alleging that the Bush administration has failed to enforce a ban on the production and sale of semiautomatic weapons, one of several efforts by advocates to raise awareness that the assault weapons ban is set to expire this fall.

Advocates are trying to convince lawmakers to extend the ban, but experts say it is unlikely the Republican-controlled Congress will bring it to a vote in an election year.

The 1994 law banned 19 specific semi-automatic assault weapons and copies of those guns. The law allowed existing assault weapons to remain in use, but some senators say they expected that the pre-ban weapons would become obsolete over time and the number of guns on the street would decline.

The lawsuit to be filed by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the Million Mom March, a gun control advocacy group, alleges that companies are rebuilding and resurrecting unusable pre-ban weapons with the permission of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The groups contend that the bureau has no legal right to grant that permission.

The groups acknowledge that even if they win, the victory will be short-lived if the assault weapons ban expires as scheduled Sept. 13.

"We are doing everything we possibly can to make sure that doesn't happen," said Dennis Henigan, legal director of the Brady Campaign.

The National Riffle Association says the ban is ineffective and should expire. "When the ban was enacted 10 years ago, it was intended as an experiment to see if it would be effective in preventing crime," said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. "Since then, numerous studies have shown that this ban has not achieved that goal."

The Senate this month approved an amendment to extend the ban but then killed the bill that carried the amendment.

Some senators think they can get Congress to pass an extension but admit they face an uphill battle. Even if they can't get legislation renewing the ban passed, they hope they can bring the issue to the center of the presidential campaign.

President Bush said he supported the assault weapons ban during the 2000 campaign, but he has not put pressure on Congress to approve an extension.

White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said, "The president has made his views known on this issue, and they are unchanged," but would not elaborate on the topic or explain Bush's views.

Democratic presidential contender John Kerry supports the ban and says he would work to renew it if he is elected in November.

Even if the Senate were to pass legislation to extend the ban, it is unlikely leaders of the House will allow the issue to come to the floor for debate, so supporters are looking for other ways to pass the measure.

"We've already shown that the Senate is in support of it," said David Hantman, spokesman for Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a leading advocate for the assault weapons ban. "The question is how to get it to the president's desk when you have [House Majority Leader] Tom DeLay saying it will never happen."

Feinstein is looking for a way to get the extension through Congress, possibly by attaching it to other legislation, Hantman said.

John Bruce, a professor of political science at the University of Mississippi, said it is "unlikely that [the ban] would be extended. ... But its failure to pass doesn't preclude its use as a political issue."

Bruce said if Bush and Kerry are close in the polls, Bush might again announce his support for the ban without having to sign it into law.

"The White House can say `we support this,' wink-wink, nod-nod toward House leadership, knowing the House leadership has no intention of having a vote," Bruce said.

The Brady Campaign's lawsuit will allege the ATF violated the assault weapons ban by granting gun manufacturers permission to replace receivers - the firing mechanism of the gun that the law defines as the gun itself - and give pre-ban guns new serial numbers.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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