In the most striking display yet of politicians' growing willingness to buck the powerful gun lobby, the Senate voted 50 to 49 Wednesday to expand a federal ban on semiautomatic "assault weapons" said to be favored by drug dealers and other criminals.
Targeted are 14 military-style rifles and pistols, including seven domestic models that President Bush had refused to add to the list of 43 foreign-made imports he banned under an administrative order last summer.
Nearly two dozen senators--heavily lobbied by law enforcement officials who complained about the awesome firepower of assault weapons--abandoned their past support of the National Rifle Assn. in backing the ban proposed by Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), himself a former NRA "Legislator of the Month."
One lawmaker who turned around was Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), a candidate for governor. Wilson said he supported the ban because it is consistent with one adopted by the state of California last year following the Stockton schoolyard massacre in which five died and 30 were wounded by an AK-47 assault rifle wielded by drifter Patrick Purdy.
"This is the worst legislative loss ever suffered by the NRA," exulted Sarah Brady, head of Handgun Control Inc. and the wife of James S. Brady, the former White House press secretary who was severely wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on then-President Ronald Reagan.
"Obviously, we're disappointed," said NRA lobbyist James Baker. "We have a tough battle ahead."
The outlook for that battle is cloudy.
The proposed ban, overwhelmingly opposed by Republicans, is part of an omnibus crime bill that Republicans now may seek to vote down or filibuster to death, sources said.
Moreover, although a House subcommittee has approved a broader ban similar to ones in California and New Jersey, pro-gun sentiment is believed strong among many House members who fear retribution by voters in this election year.
Also, it is uncertain whether the President, an NRA member, would sign a ban expansion. He recently backed away from advocating even a limit on the ammunition capacity of assault weapons.
The Senate vote surprised both sides, even though Congress in the last three years has voted to outlaw armor-piercing "cop killer" bullets and hard-to-detect plastic guns, despite fierce NRA opposition.
On Tuesday night, the Senate rejected, on a vote of 82 to 17, a proposal by Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) to ban the manufacture and sale of approximately twice as many assault weapons as listed by DeConcini.
It was thought that Tuesday's vote had signaled decisive Senate sentiment against a ban. As it turned out, however, the Metzenbaum vote merely provided an opportunity for many senators to employ the time-worn tactic of coming down on both sides of an issue. By voting against Metzenbaum, many senators felt they had given themselves political cover to vote Wednesday in favor of the narrower DeConcini ban.
"They thought they let themselves off the hook by voting against Metzenbaum and then supporting DeConcini's so-called grand compromise," NRA lobbyist Tom Korologos said ruefully.
"The other thing that was not helpful to us," he added, "is that the police guys were working the halls" in favor of the DeConcini ban.
Also, a number of the NRA's traditional Senate supporters suggested they were tired of the gun group's "extreme positions" and use of questionable arguments to defend them.
In a speech, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.), usually an NRA ally, protested what he called "false claims" and "hysterical rhetoric" against the DeConcini proposal. He said the measure was a "moderate, limited" ban that "will not harm the interests of any law-abiding hunter in Maine or any other state."
In another action on the crime bill, the Senate tentatively rejected a Republican alternative to a Democratic plan limiting the ability of state Death Row inmates to challenge their sentences in federal court.
Republicans contended that their proposal to change the habeas corpus system would do far more to speed up executions, which can be delayed now for years.
The GOP plan would drop the requirement that state court appeals have to be exhausted before a federal review can begin; the Democrats' would not.
The Republicans also would require prisoners to file for federal review of their convictions within 60 days. The Democrats would allow a year.
Further, the GOP proposal would permit federal courts only 310 days to complete reviews. The Democrats would impose no limits.
The Republican plan was rejected by 50 to 47, but an attempt will be made today to reverse the outcome.