[ OUR OPINION ]
CRIMINALS will be able to acquire their guns of choice more easily unless a federal ban on semiautomatic assault weapons is renewed by Congress. President Bush favors extending the ban, but some congressional Republicans are poised to allow the weapons back on the streets. Bush should follow through on his campaign pledge and urge Congress to maintain the prohibition.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has said he will not bring an extension of the federal ban on assault weapons to the House floor.
Congress approved the ban in 1994, and it is due to expire in September 2004 unless it is renewed. The National Rifle Association is urging its expiration, although the ban does not affect rifles and shotguns traditionally used for hunting or target-shooting and grandfathers in pre-ban assault weapons.
While banning 19 types of assault weapons, it protects some 670 types of hunting and recreational rifles. Included in the prohibition are military-style guns such as AK-47s, Uzis and other weapons designed with one purpose in mind -- killing people.
At the urging of Hawaii's law-enforcement coalition, the state Legislature approved a ban on assault pistols and pistol ammunition magazines holding more than 10 rounds three years before the federal ban was enacted. The lack of a federal ban would undermine the Hawaii law and assault-weapons bans in five other states, including California.
Unless President Bush takes an active role in urging an extension, the federal ban appears likely to come to an end. The House approved the ban by only two votes in 1994, when Democrats were in control. House Republican Leader Tom DeLay of Texas said on Tuesday that he would refuse to bring the extension up for a vote. However, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert said House leaders have not decided whether to allow a vote.
Hastert said he plans to discuss the issue with the president. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer has reiterated that Bush, who endorsed the ban's extension in the 2000 campaign, continues to view it as "a reasonable step."
"This is a matter that the House has to work out, of course, by listening to the will of its members, but the president's position is clear on it," Fleischer said. "When the president states his position like that, it helps get the message to the Congress."
That is not enough. Bush needs to aggressively urge GOP members of the House to extend the prohibition or, better yet, strengthen it. The current issue of Gun World magazine boasts that clones of banned assault weapons "sprang back with a vengeance and seem better than ever." The poster child of the clones is the Bushmaster XM15 M4 A3 assault rifle, marketed as a "post-ban carbine" and used last October by the Washington, D.C.-area snipers in the killing of 10 people and wounding of three.