Deadly weapons

September 10, 2004

ABSENT A MIRACLE, the 10-year-old federal ban on assault weapons will expire on Monday. It's a particularly sad day for gun owners. It signals the rise of a foolish, extremist view of gun ownership rights that defies common sense and isn't shared by the majority. But one of the law's most visible supporters will probably not mourn its passing.

Four years ago, candidate George W. Bush stated his unequivocal support for the renewal of the assault weapons ban. It didn't even seem particularly controversial at the time (Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford supported the ban). Mr. Bush hasn't publicly backed down from his position but, unfortunately, he hasn't lifted a finger for the cause either. In fact, when the issue came before the Senate last spring, administration officials worked against a renewal. The legislation died (despite a 52-47 vote of approval). It's never even gotten the courtesy of an up-or-down vote in the House.

When the ban runs out, what's going to happen? In the short term, probably not much. There were already plenty of loopholes in the original law so the effects might not be immediate. But it will mean that eventually more military-style guns - weapons that can be spray-fired rapidly from the hip by repeated pulls of the trigger - will end up in the hands of drug-traffickers, gangs and other criminal groups.

That's bad enough. But the ban's expiration suggests that this country is incapable of adopting - or enforcing - sensible gun laws of any stripe. Prosecute people who lie on background checks? Not happening. Revoke licenses of firearms dealers who break the law? Rarely. Pass legislation closing the gun-show loophole (if only to prevent terrorists from buying guns)? Even that seems to have little chance of passage in Congress.

It's clear that a majority of Americans support an extension of the assault weapons ban. Some polls suggest at least a 2-1 majority are in favor. Politicians like Mr. Bush know this, but they also know that people aren't that focused on gun laws right now, not with so many other problems facing this country.

Both Mr. Bush and his Democratic opponent, John F. Kerry, say they support the Second Amendment. And both have expressed support for banning assault weapons. But while Mr. Kerry has cast a vote to do just that, the White House's current occupant has chosen a disingenuous path. Mr. Bush claims to be working hard to make this country safer - yet he's willing to allow the spread of these dangerous weapons.

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