WASHINGTON - As the 10-year-old federal ban on assault weapons expired yesterday, Sen. John Kerry accused President Bush of making life easier for terrorists and harder for police officers by letting the law lapse.
Kerry, who has been sharpening his attacks on Bush as he lags in the polls, accused the president of making a "secret deal" with the gun lobby not to renew the law, which had banned 19 military-style rifles and a host of gun features. The Massachusetts Democrat unveiled a $5 billion anti-crime plan that would extend the assault weapons ban.
As a candidate in 2000, Bush had backed the ban, and he said recently that he would sign it if the Republican-led Congress sent it to him. But he did not push for it.
And earlier this year he opposed the addition of gun control amendments, including an extension of the assault weapons ban, to a broader bill to shield gun makers and sellers from liability for violent crime. Bush's opposition helped defeat that measure in the Senate.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan called Kerry's assertions "another false attack." Bush's support for the ban is "well-known," he said.
At an event in Washington's Shaw neighborhood, Kerry said Bush "failed the test of leadership."
"When it came time to make a phone call, when it became time to fight, when it became time to lead, when it became time to stand up and ask America to do what was right, George Bush's powerful friends in the gun lobby asked him to look the other way, and he couldn't resist, and he said, `Sure,'" Kerry said.
Kerry's decision to highlight his support for the gun control measure marked a calculation for him on an issue that many think helped doom Al Gore's chances of beating Bush in 2000. Some voters in key states that Kerry would need to win in November are suspicious of any law that limits gun ownership.
Still, polls show that the assault-weapons ban, signed by President Bill Clinton, enjoys broad support, including among gun owners and especially among independent voters whose backing will be crucial on Election Day. Kerry is trying to weaken Bush on the gun issue while avoiding being pegged as a radical anti-gun liberal.
"I am a gun owner. I am a hunter - I've been a hunter since I was a kid," said Kerry, a former prosecutor who was endorsed yesterday by the National Association of Police Organizations. "But I'm also forever a law enforcement officer. And I know this: As a gun owner, as a hunter, I've never thought about going hunting with a military assault weapon - ever."
The Bush campaign hit back, contending that Kerry has consistently voted against gun rights in the Senate and noting that he has received an "F" rating from the National Rifle Association. Aides defended Bush, saying he supported the weapons ban but believes that tight enforcement of existing laws is the most effective way to prevent violent crime.
"The president feels that the best way to deter gun violence and the best way to protect people's rights to own a gun without interference from the government is to hold people to account and vigorously prosecute those who use guns to commit violent crimes," sad Kevin Madden, a Bush campaign spokesman.
Aides distributed a memo on the law enforcement initiatives Bush has launched, including a federal-state program to combat gun violence that the campaign said has helped cut violent crime rates. Bush has also stepped up enforcement of gun laws, increasing by 68 percent the number of people charged with gun crimes, compared with the number during the Clinton administration, the memo said.
But Kerry said that on the president's watch, "crime is on the rise," and noted that Bush has slashed funding for new police officers. And he portrayed the gun ban as an important tool in the fight against terrorism, saying that lifting the prohibition on military-style weapons would help terrorists.
"George Bush chose to make the job of terrorists easier and the job of America's police officers harder, and that's just plain wrong," Kerry said.
Experts differ on how effective the assault weapons ban has been in combating gun crimes, with its limited list of prohibited guns, features and devices, including large-capacity ammunition clips. Manufacturers have skirted the measure by making slight modifications that transform guns into legal weapons that would otherwise fall under the ban. And the law contained a grandfather clause that exempted assault weapons and ammunition devices made before Sept. 13, 1994.
University of Pennsylvania researchers who studied six localities, including Baltimore, reported in June that the ban had "mixed" success in reducing the use of the outlawed weapons to commit crimes. The number of gun crimes involving assault weapons declined in those areas, according to the study. But there was an increase in the use of other guns equipped with large-capacity clips.