WASHINGTON - Byrl Phillips-Taylor sat in the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California 10 years ago, clutching a photo of her dead son, as Feinstein worked the phones to try to keep a nationwide ban on assault weapons in a crime bill. At the last minute, two senators changed sides and prevented a National Rifle Association-led effort from killing the ban.
"What I don't understand is why I am here again, now, after everything," Phillips-Taylor said yesterday in a Senate office building, holding the same photo. "I need somebody to explain to me how this is possible."
On Monday, with little fanfare or public notice - and barely a mention from President Bush or Sen. John Kerry - a ban on the sale of 19 kinds of military-style assault rifles, capable of firing dozens of bullets in seconds, will expire after 10 years.
Despite broad public support for the ban, Republican leaders said they intend to let the law lapse.
Yesterday, Phillips-Taylor, whose son was gunned down in 1989 by a teenager wielding an assault rifle, and more than three dozen police chiefs from across the country were waging an uphill fight to try to save the ban. They gathered on Capitol Hill with a few lawmakers to plead with the Republican-led Congress and Bush to renew it.
"I shudder to think what will happen if these weapons are made available again," said Charles H. Ramsey, the District of Columbia's police chief. "It would be a catastrophic leap backward."
Until the ban was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994, Ramsey and other chiefs said, their officers would often find themselves outgunned as criminals fired at will with assault rifles equipped with flash suppressors, stabilizers, telescoping handles and detachable magazines, while police struggled to reload their handguns.
Since then, the law has amassed wide support in opinion polls, according to a nonpartisan survey whose results were released in April.
The poll, by the National Annenberg Election Survey, found that 71 percent of Americans - including 64 percent of those with a gun in their home - favor extending the ban on assault weapons.
Supporters say the law has succeeded despite serious loopholes. They point to a drop in crime rates and the reduced number of police officers killed by what was the weapon of choice for many drug dealers.
"It has huge public support; why the hell is this looking like it's about to expire?" asked Eric Howard, a spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, who has spent weeks trying to bring attention to the law's expiration. "That's the question."
Matter of politics
The answer, supporters of the ban say, is politics.
Joe Polisar, police chief in Garden Grove, Calif., and president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, told lawmakers and supporters yesterday: "This is not a Republican or a Democratic issue. This is a public safety issue."
Clinton has said that while he views the ban as one of his highest achievements, he believes it cost Democrats at least 20 seats in the House that year, when many were attacked as being broadly opposed to gun rights.
Democratic strategists also mention Bush's defeat of Al Gore in 2000, notably in Tennessee, West Virginia and Arkansas, three key battleground states particularly attuned to gun rights that were blanketed by NRA ads and get-out-the-vote efforts that year.
Supporters of the ban say that this time, many candidates in both parties, especially Democrats, seem hesitant to call attention to a touchy issue that might alienate some swing voters in hotly contended states.
"Democrats have become gun-shy," said Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center, an anti-gun advocacy group. "To be honest, the issue really hurt Al Gore in 2000. But the [specific] issue that hurt him was gun licensing.
"As soon as you say licensing, [opponents] say licensing equals registration equals confiscation. The gun lobby quickly activates its grass roots."
Even though the assault weapons ban does not involve licensing, Rand said, the law has been lumped in with the broader debate: "On the national level, it's a hot potato."
Just yesterday, the NRA launched a $400,000-a-week ad to run in several battleground states, including Ohio, Missouri and Florida, warning that Kerry would erode gun owners' rights.
Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the NRA, said in an interview that his group believes the ban has failed to reduce violent crime significantly and should be allowed to lapse. But he said the NRA's main objection to the law is that it appears to be "one more step toward banning more guns."
Indeed, the issue has become so vital to the NRA that top officials recently pulled the plug on a bill that was their top legislative priority - to shield gun manufacturers from lawsuits brought by victims of gun violence - after Democrats attached an amendment to extend the assault weapons ban.