Assault Weapons Ban Clears House by Slim Margin : Congress: Last-minute decisions by lawmakers produce dramatic 216-214 outcome. Vote is seen as victory for Clinton and major defeat for the NRA.
Gun-control forces won a come-from-behind victory Thursday as the House voted by a narrow margin to prohibit the manufacture, sale and possession of combat-style assault weapons, virtually ensuring that the ban will become law soon as part of broader anti-crime legislation.
The ban, approved on a cliffhanger 216-214 vote, came as many lawmakers defied the politically potent National Rifle Assn. for the first time. They joined instead with the Clinton Administration, major law enforcement organizations and other gun-control advocates whose vigorous, coordinated lobby in recent days rescued the legislation from expected defeat.
As happened with several crucial bills in this session of Congress, the fate of the legislation was in doubt until the last moment, with the tally favoring one side, then another as the votes were counted. If even a single supporter had switched sides, the bill would have died on a tie vote.
The outcome marked the second big defeat in Congress for the NRA, which last year failed by a much larger margin to block the Brady bill, the law that imposes a five-day waiting period on handgun purchases so police can make background checks to prevent ex-convicts and the mentally ill from purchasing guns.
To a large extent, the gun lobby appears to have run into an angry public, with several polls over the last year showing that respondents overwhelming want a ban on assault weapons.
“In the last year there has been a sea change in the crime debate,” a jubilant President Clinton said after the vote. In 1991, the House defeated an earlier version of the ban by a 70-vote margin.
As Thursday’s voting took place, congressional advocates and opponents jammed the floor to watch the electronic tally and to persuade undecided members.
With tension rising in the closing moments and opponents ahead, 214-213, Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr. (D-Ind.) switched his vote, putting the ban ahead by a single vote.
Reps. Austin J. Murphy (D-Pa.) and Doug Applegate (D-Ohio), who had not voted yet, were besieged by colleagues on both sides of the issue, pleading for support.
Murphy voted “no” and Applegate voted “yes,” while another foot-dragging member, Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) also voted for the bill to produce the final result, 216-214.
Analysis of the voting showed that, in general, House members from urban and suburban areas tended to favor the bill while most representatives from rural, Western or Southern districts voted against it.
The comments of many lawmakers who voted for the ban indicated that they had exercised a “conscience vote” and many predicted that they would suffer politically as a result.
The President said he first thought the ban would pass when Rep. Bob Carr (D-Mich.), a longtime ally of the NRA, announced that he would vote for it as the roll call vote began.
There were other surprises as well. Retiring Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) quietly cast his vote for the bill, along with 37 other Republicans, 177 Democrats and one independent.
“I heard many arguments over the past several days, but in the end this was a personal decision based on nothing but my own conscience,” Michel said.
On the other side were 137 Republicans and 77 Democrats, including Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Alluding to the intensity of the issue among Texas gun owners, Rep. Charles Wilson (D-Tex.) said that “if I voted for it, I wouldn’t be physically safe when I go home this weekend.”
The six Republican congressmen who represent Orange County all voted against the ban, which one of them described as “an assault on law-abiding citizens’ rights.”
“This legislation is designed to provide camouflage for those members who refuse to get tough on crime by getting tough on criminals,” said Rep. Ron Packard of Oceanside. “Banning these weapons does nothing to make the streets safer.”
Speaking against the ban in heated debate on the House floor, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach argued that it interferes with the rights of citizens to protect themselves.
“There is a legitimate purpose for these weapons--it’s called defending one’s home and family,” he said in an interview later.
The California delegation split mainly along party lines. All 30 Democrats voted for the ban, as did Republican Reps. Steve Horn of Long Beach and Michael Huffington of Santa Barbara.
The other 20 California Republicans voted against the measure.
Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), who has a long history of opposing gun-control measures, presided during passage of the bill but did not cast a vote, saying that he wanted to let House members decide the controversial issue.
Backers of the ban have had an uphill fight in the House. Foley’s opposition deprived them of the leadership organization to line up votes.
They formed an ad hoc task force instead.
With Clinton and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno working the phones from the outside, advocates worked one-on-one with their colleagues to persuade them to support the ban.
A wave of telephone calls from hunters and other gun owners was mounted in opposition.
Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), a hard-liner on criminal-justice matters, gave the proponents a boost when he voted for the bill in the Judiciary Committee, crediting Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) with persuading him of its merits.
In turn, Hyde influenced Michel and other GOP fence-sitters.
Rep. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.), who had been undecided, drew cheers from proponents of the ban when he announced his support.
“I am a member of the NRA,” Houghton said. “It’s going to hurt me politically--no question--but I think it’s the right thing to do.”
Now that it has passed the House, the ban is certain to be added to the final version of the comprehensive crime bill that will be fashioned in the next two weeks by a Senate-House conference committee.
The Senate previously had adopted a similar ban on a vote of 56 to 43.
Both the Senate and House legislation also would put tens of thousands more police on the streets and allocate billions for prison construction.
The House bill would bar the future manufacture, sale and possession of 19 specific assault weapons, such as the Street Sweeper and a modified AK-47, as well as look-alike models and magazines carrying more than 10 rounds of ammunition.
At the same time, however, the measure would allow the current owners of such guns to keep their weapons.
It also specifically exempts 670 guns used for hunting or target-shooting.
Sponsors said the conference committee’s product is expected to be ratified and sent to Clinton before Congress leaves for its Memorial Day recess at the end of this month.
The House debate on assault weapons repeated familiar arguments on both sides of the contentious issue.
Advocates said the ban was narrowly drawn and would not affect the right of hunters and gun enthusiasts to bear arms.
Opponents said the legislation amounted to symbolism that would not affect crime rates because criminals would acquire guns illegally.
Times staff writer Faye Fiore contributed to this report.
Vote on Assault Weapons Ban
Here is how members of the California delegation voted Thursday on a measure to ban 19 types of assault-style weapons:
Democrats for--Becerra, Beilenson, Berman, Brown, Condit, Dellums, Dixon, Dooley, Edwards, Eshoo, Farr, Fazio, Filner, Hamburg, Harman, Lantos, Lehman, Martinez, Matsui, Miller, Mineta, Pelosi, Roybal-Allard, Schenk, Stark, Torres, Tucker, Waters, Waxman, Woolsey
Republicans for--Horn, Huffington
Republicans against--Baker, Calvert, Cox, Cunningham, Doolittle, Dornan, Dreier, Gallegly, Herger, Hunter, Kim, Lewis, McCandless, McKeon, Moorhead, Packard, Pombo, Rohrabacher, Royce, Thomas