The Senate Judiciary Committee, in an initial attempt to outlaw American-made assault rifles, Thursday approved a bill imposing a three-year ban on sales of several domestic models while allowing current owners of such weapons to keep them.
The committee voted, 7 to 6, to approve what would become the Anti-Drug Assault Weapon Limitation Act, sponsored by Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.). The vote represents a preliminary test of Senate support for extending President Bush's ban on foreign-made assault weapons to domestic makes.
In addition to the U.S. models, the bill would ban five types of foreign assault weapons temporarily barred by the Administration, and it would double to 10 years the maximum prison term for use of an assault weapon during a violent or drug-related crime.
The committee rejected an attempt by Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) to substitute the Bush Administration's anti-crime package, which does not seek to bar domestic assault rifles, for the DeConcini bill. The 8-5 vote against the Bush package represented a defeat for the National Rifle Assn., which opposes a ban on domestic assault weapons.
Thurmond and NRA officials later vowed to bring the issue to a vote before the full Senate.
"We're confident that on the floor, the votes are there to defeat the (DeConcini) bill," said NRA spokesman Wayne LaPierre. The bill will reach the Senate floor later in the year.
'Major Step Forward'
Gun control activists hailed the bill's approval as a major victory, particularly since the committee has a conservative reputation on gun control issues.
"The DeConcini bill is a major step forward in the battle against assault weapons used by drug dealers," said Charles Orasin, president of Handgun Control Inc., a private organization that favors increased gun regulation.
But LaPierre, the NRA spokesman, said that the bill is "meaningless" because it bans weapons by model instead of by operating characteristics. "All (the manufacturers) have to do is change the brand name" to evade the intent of the legislation, he said.
The bill specifically bars "the future transferring, importing, transporting, shipping, receiving, and possession" of several U.S.-made assault rifles: the Intratec Tec-9, the Street Sweeper and Striker 12, the Colt AR-15 and CAR-15 and the MAC 10 and MAC 11.
Those weapons were singled out because statistics from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms show that they are the models most frequently used in connection with drug dealing and violent crimes, according to a top aide to DeConcini.
The aide acknowledged that manufacturers may be able to circumvent the legislation by renaming their weapons or modifying them slightly.
DeConcini's original bill banned assault weapons by type. But the senator changed the measure to ban specific models after gun owners complained that the original ban would be too broad, the aide said. To win committee approval, DeConcini added a clause limiting the ban to three years.
During the three-year period, the bill directs the Department of Justice to study the effectiveness of the ban in reducing violent and drug-related crime.
DeConcini watered down the bill because "he is trying to get at the drug dealers without infringing upon the rights of Americans to legally own these weapons," the aide said.
"I am pleased that the Senate Judiciary Committee has reported out a bill that can begin to deal with the danger that assault weapons pose to public safety," said Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), a committee member. "While I voted for the (bill), I do not believe that it goes far enough toward keeping these weapons of war off our streets."
Metzenbaum said that he plans to offer amendments expanding the list of domestic assault weapons to be banned, prohibiting people convicted of gun-related or drug-related misdemeanors from owning weapons and barring sale of cartridge clips that hold large quantities of bullets.
On March 14, the Administration imposed a temporary ban on more than 30 types of foreign-made assault weapons pending an investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on whether the weapons are used primarily for sporting purposes.
The action was taken in response to growing public concern about the use of assault weapons in violent crimes, such as the January slaying of schoolchildren at an elementary school in Stockton, Calif.
The President's proposed crime package sidesteps the issue of banning domestic-made assault weapons, although it deals with it indirectly by proposing limits on the size of cartridge clips than can be sold.