A pair of U.S. senators noted for their avid support of gun control are praising President Bush for his backing of the continuation of a weapons ban the lawmakers pushed through Congress 10 years ago.
"[Sens.] Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., welcomed the announcement that President George W. Bush supports the reauthorization of the 1994 assault-weapons ban, which is set to expire in 2004," says an April 16 statement published on the California Democrat's website.
In a letter to Bush, the senators said, "As the original authors of the assault-weapons ban in the Senate and the House, we strongly believe that military-style assault weapons have no place on America's streets and should be banned.
"In 1994, we fought hard to win passage of the original ban, and shortly after Congress returns from the spring recess we plan to introduce legislation that would reauthorize it," the letter continued.
Feinstein and Schumer were responding to comments attributed to Bush by White House spokesman Scott McClellan. WorldNetDaily reported that McClellan, in responding April 13 to a question posed by Knight Ridder newspaper, said the president "supports the current law, and he supports reauthorization of the current law."
To win more converts, ban supporters inserted a 10-year sunset provision into the original 1994 legislation. That means the law is set to expire in September 2004, just weeks before the general election. But Feinstein and Schumer said they planned to introduce new legislation to "reauthorize the ban" – probably for good, critics believe.
According to Feinstein's statement, the new bill would "reauthorize the prohibition on manufacture, transfer and possession military-style assault weapons, while protecting hunting rifles and other firearms" and "close the clip-importation loophole, which prohibits the sale of domestically produced high-capacity ammunition magazines, but allows foreign companies to continue to bring them into the country by the millions." The senators said Bush indicated his support for closing that loophole during the 2000 presidential election.
At the same time, the new bill would "preserve the right of police officers and other law-enforcement officials to use and obtain newly manufactured semi-automatic assault weapons."
"We welcome your support and look forward to working with you to gain swift passage of this legislation," the senators said. "With your assistance, we will be able to pass legislation to continue the ban and help make America's streets safer."
Gun rights advocates are confused by Bush's stance.
"Why would George Bush want to help Democrats?" said Larry Pratt, executive director of the 300,000-member Gun Owners of America, based in Springfield, Va. "The issue, when it was opposed by most Republicans, cost Democrats the House in 1994 and the White House in 2000."
He also sees a domestic-security issue that is at stake. "Banning the homeland-security rifle is pure Washington, but anti-Constitution and anti-homeland security," Pratt said.
The White House repeatedly failed to respond to questions from WorldNetDaily over whether Bush would sign the Schumer-Feinstein bill should it make it to his desk.
But some lawmakers say gun owners should not have been surprised by the president's comments.
"President Bush already stated his support for the ban during the 2000 campaign. The irony is that he did so even as the Democratic Party was abandoning gun control as a losing issue," said Rep. Ron Paul, in his weekly column posted online April 16.
Nevertheless, Paul wrote, Bush's stance could cost him dearly next year. "Given [the] trend in the American electorate away from support for gun control, the administration's position may well cost votes in 2004," he said.
Paul, a staunch gun-rights supporter, said the administration's position on so-called "assault weapons" while claiming it is gun-rights oriented is hypocritical.
In making his point, Paul quoted Georgetown University professor Robert Levy, who recently offered this comparison: "Suppose the Second Amendment said, 'A well-educated electorate being necessary for self-governance in a free state, the right of the people to keep and read books shall not be infringed.' Is there anyone who would suggest that means only registered voters have a right to read?"
"Tortured interpretations of the Second Amendment cannot change the fact that both the letter of the amendment itself and the legislative history conclusively show that the Founders intended ordinary citizens to be armed," said Paul.
Meanwhile, in other parts of the country, gun-rights activists are working to overturn similar gun bans.
In Connecticut, gun owners and gun dealers filed suit last week in state Superior Court in a bid to have the state's 1993 "assault weapons" ban overturned, the Connecticut Post reported.
Plaintiffs, the paper said, claim the state's Department of Public Safety can't administer the law in a uniform manner. The suit says two separate buyers purchased the same rifle, but when they attempted to register them on successive days, one buyer was allowed to keep his while the other's was seized.
The paper reported that Ralph D. Sherman, a West Hartford lawyer, said last week that the suit is asking the court to void the regulations while ordering DPS Commissioner Arthur L. Spada to neither enforce them nor arrest anyone for possessing weapons previously deemed illegal.
Also, the suit seeks termination of any DPS databases tied to the gun ban.
"They are phony regulations," Sherman – chairman of Gunsafe, a group of state firearms owners – said. "The Department of Public Safety has changed its mind several times on what these regulations are supposed to be. It's a major challenge to an administrative agency that's not following correct procedure."
In February, legal scholars from The Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based libertarian think tank, filed suit against the nation's capital, charging its gun-control restrictions were unconstitutional.
Robert A. Levy, senior fellow in constitutional studies, and Gene Healy, senior editor, joined by two other D.C.-based attorneys, argued in their complaint that "the Second Amendment guarantees individuals a fundamental right to possess a functional, personal firearm, such as a handgun ... within the home."
However, they charged, officials in D.C. "enforce a set of laws [that] deprive individuals, including the plaintiffs, of this important right."
Other pundits decry what they see as gun-control laws that stretch the boundaries of reason.
Dave Kopel, research director for the Independence Institute, has criticized the city of Denver's efforts to criminalize squirt guns. And in January, New York City officials sought to toughen existing bans on toy guns, because, they say, toy guns are often used by criminals and have become a threat to police.