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House Votes to Repeal Ban on Assault Weapons

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thrusting the emotional issues of guns and crime into the election-year spotlight, the House voted Friday to repeal a 2-year-old ban on deadly assault weapons.

The bill passed by a solid 239-173 margin, but that triumph for the gun lobby was largely symbolic. President Clinton has promised to veto the measure, a top priority of the National Rifle Assn., and the issue may never even come to a vote in the Senate.

But the two-hour House debate--laced with podium-pounding anger, voice-cracking emotion, NRA-bashing rhetoric and periodic war whoops--provided a raucous preview of how the issue of gun control could be deployed in this year’s presidential and congressional campaigns.

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Almost no one had any doubt about the outcome of the vote. But the lightning rod of gun control inevitably drew fireworks.

In a voice-cracking speech criticizing Republicans for pushing to repeal the weapons ban, Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.), a nephew of President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, alluded to his uncles’ assassinations in the 1960s.

“You will never know what it’s like because you don’t have someone in your family killed,” Kennedy said. “Play with the devil, die with the devil.”

That infuriated Rep. Gerald B.H. Solomon (R-N.Y.), 65, a leading opponent of the weapons ban, who demanded that the 28-year-old Kennedy return to the well of the House for a tongue-lashing.

“I have great respect for he and his family, but I’m going to tell you something. When he stands up and questions the integrity of those of us that have this bill on the floor, the gentleman ought to be a little more careful. . . .

“My wife lives alone five days a week in a rural area in upstate New York,” a livid Solomon shouted, slamming the podium with his fist. “She has the right to defend herself when I’m not there, son. And don’t you ever forget it. Don’t you ever forget it.”

Democratic opponents of repealing the ban portrayed the vote--promised early in 1995 by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and scheduled this week with little notice--as a political payoff to the NRA and an emblem of Republican obeisance to special interests.

“Speaker Gingrich is launching this sneak attack for one simple reason,” said Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), leading opponent of the repeal. “He must kiss the ring of the NRA.”

But opponents of the assault-weapons ban--a 1994 law that prohibits the manufacture and importation of 19 types of semiautomatic assault-style weapons--insisted that it is not a partisan issue. Indeed, 56 Democrats cast votes for repealing the ban and 42 Republicans opposed repeal. “A majority of the members of the 104th Congress are not interested in gun control. They are not interested in government control. They are interested in crime control,” said Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), leading proponent of the repeal bill, which included an amendment increasing prison sentences for crimes committed with a gun.

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Much of Friday’s House debate was conducted with the air of an argument whose outcome was certain and whose competing claims were well-rehearsed. Opponents of the repeal bill said the assault-weapons ban was needed to keep criminals from getting their hands on deadly firearms that have no place in recreation. Advocates of repeal said the ban was an unnecessary infringement on the right of law-abiding citizens to bear arms and that it had been ineffective as an anticrime tool.

Despite the fact that Republicans and Democrats voted on both sides of the issue, the debate had an intensely partisan cast because it was conducted in the shadow of presidential politics. The president firmly supports the weapons ban and his presumptive GOP rival for the White House, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), supports its repeal.

Clinton administration officials underscored the contrast in a news conference Friday that featured representatives of the nation’s law enforcement community and a display of weapons now outlawed.

“You can see a very clear choice between President Clinton’s values and the values of the Republicans in Congress,” said Vice President Al Gore. “Their approach is dangerous, radical and wrong and it will not stand.”

Some Republicans acknowledged that the debate put Dole in a tight spot by highlighting his opposition to a gun-control measure that may be anathema to a core GOP constituency but is supported by about 70% of the public, according to polls.

“The timing for Dole is not good,” said Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), a freshman who supported the repeal but was unhappy with the GOP leadership’s decision to bring it to a vote Friday. “He’s heading into the California primary and this is not exactly the message of hope.”

Dole, who also promised the NRA last year that he would bring the issue to a vote, now seems unenthusiastic about the prospect. Asked about the House vote at a news conference at the Mexican border near San Diego, he indicated that he has no plans to bring the measure to the Senate floor any time soon, but he repeated his past statements of support for the concept of lifting the ban.

“What we need to do is to devise a plan that works,” he said. “It [the ban] is not working. . . .”

“We need to go to an instant check,” Dole said, referring to the proposal for a computer system that could quickly check whether a person attempting to buy a gun has a history of criminal convictions or mental illness.

“Sixteen states now have instant check and it’s working,” Dole said, adding that he would propose legislation in late summer or early fall to institute some form of an instant check nationally--a schedule that would almost certainly prevent a final vote on the issue before Congress adjourns for the fall campaign.

If the repeal measure is brought up sooner, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) declared Friday that she has more than enough votes to sustain a filibuster and kill the bill. Feinstein said Dole told her he would not bring the issue to the Senate floor. “He told me, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not a priority. We’re not going to [schedule] it,’ ” Feinstein said.

The backdrop of the 1996 presidential election obscured the fact that the repeal bill, like most gun-control measures, drew bipartisan support. Many Democrats--especially from rural and Western districts--are traditionally hostile to gun-control such as like the assault-weapons ban. And many Republicans, particularly moderates from the Northeast and Midwest, support gun-control measures.

Among the Republicans opposing the assault-ban repeal was one of the GOP’s most respected senior conservatives, Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.). “Hunters have a right to hunting guns,” he said. “But an Uzi, an AK-47 has no legitimate purpose in the civilian population.”

The repeal bill’s author was a Democrat, Rep. Jim Chapman of Texas. Its Western supporters included such strange bedfellows as Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.), one of the House’s most liberal members, and Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-Ida.), one of the most conservative.

Ironically, speakers on both sides of the debate cited the recent tragedy in which a man opened fire in a school gymnasium in Scotland and killed 16 children and their teacher. Proponents of the weapons ban said the incident showed the horrors of what happens when guns fall into the wrong hands. Opponents said that it demonstrated the impotence of gun control to prevent violence, noting that Britain has some of the strictest restrictions on firearms in the world.

“There are some crimes you can’t control,” said Rep. Bob Wise (D-W. Va.), a proponent of repealing the ban. “This isn’t what we need to fight crime.”

Proponents of the repeal said they hope the House victory will step up pressure on the Senate to vote on the issue, even if it is slated for a Clinton veto. The House vote puts Dole in the tricky position of choosing between honoring his commitment to the NRA to bring the matter to a vote--thus asking Republicans to go on the record on an issue that many would like to avoid--or alienating gun-rights activists by letting the issue die.

For now, however, the NRA is not talking a tough line about holding Dole to his promise.

“We’re going to sit down in the days and weeks ahead with the Senate leadership and talk about where we go from here,” said NRA lobbyist Tanya Metaksa. “I think we’re in a different situation” than when Dole first promised a vote.

Sheila Burke, Dole’s chief of staff, said the repeal proponents probably do not have the 51 votes needed to pass the bill, let alone the 60 votes needed to break the filibuster that surely would be mounted.

“I think the judgment has to be made whether their purposes are advanced or not by holding a vote they know they are going to lose,” she said.

Times staff writers Sheri L. Wassenaar in Washington and Maria L. La Ganga in San Diego contributed to this story.


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