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Courage, for Sanity’s Sake : House must buck the gun lobby and approve assault weapons bill

Will political courage or cowardice carry the day when the House of Representatives votes this week on legislation to ban the manufacture, sale and possession of 19 types of military-style assault weapons?

For those few dozen still-undecided lawmakers--including California Reps. Bill Baker (R-Danville), Gary A. Condit (D-Ceres), Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), Matthew G. Martinez (D-Monterey Park), Howard P. (Buck) McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) and Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield)--we recommend courage, in the interest of national sanity.

So far Congress’ abject failure to pass rational gun regulations has allowed, in the words of FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, “the image of teen-agers patrolling the streets with assault weapons” to become “a reality.” That’s insanity.

Statistics from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms indicate these paramilitary arms are increasingly the tools of preference for many criminals. And crimes involving such weapons are being committed not just in urban areas but increasingly in suburban and rural districts.

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As more communities experience gun violence, more discover there is a very dear price to be paid for federal indifference to gun violence. Perhaps that’s why the House bill last week got the unexpected support of conservative Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.).

Assault weapons serve no legitimate sporting purpose and are no more justifiable a means of home defense than a flame thrower, a bazooka or a armored vehicle with a gun turret mounted on the back. And yet the gun lobby continues to discredit itself by spinning the dangerous myth that Americans have as much right to these powerful weapons of destruction as to a hunting rifle.

The House can reject that false logic. It can pass a bare-bones, minimalist assault gun ban, nearly identical to the Senate version passed last year, which outlaws 19 specific types of semiautomatic assault rifles, pistols and shotguns. It also includes a strong provision prohibiting manufacture and importation of high-volume detachable ammunition magazines--defined as 10 or more rounds. That’s a feature still conspicuously missing from California’s assault gun law.

By approving this law, which is powerful in its symbolism, the House would provide exemptions for 670 hunting and sporting firearms. Because current assault weapons owners would be allowed to keep those firearms, law-abiding citizens would not be turned into criminals, as the National Rifle Assn. claims.

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Courageous troops need strong leaders. That’s why House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) should, as President Clinton has, make a strong push to prevent Main Street U.S.A. from becoming just another free-fire zone.


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