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Published: Saturday, 7/31/2004

Extend the ban

PRESIDENT George W. Bush and Congress are coming right down to the wire on extending the legal ban on assault weapons.

Congress is currently in recess until Sept. 7, attending the political conventions, raising funds, and campaigning for re-election. It will be in session for only a few days before the 10-year-old ban on assault weapons expires Sept. 13, so time is rapidly running out.

The original bill, the Federal Violent Crime Control Act of 1994, banned the production and sale of 19 kinds of assault weapons.

Its origins and support do not lie in some crazed liberal fantasy. It is, in fact, supported by every major law enforcement organization in America, starting with the Fraternal Order of Police. Their members support it because they do not want the criminals they face on the street to be armed with the kind of firepower that will out-gun the police.

The prohibition works. The number of assault weapons linked to crimes dropped by two-thirds from 1995, the year after the bill was passed, to 2002, when assault weapons accounted for only about 1 percent of firearms used in crimes.

To no one's surprise, the National Rifle Association opposes the ban on grounds that it infringes on the rights of gun owners. But it is hard to defend a legitimate sporting use for these weapons.

Congress passed the bill and President Bill Clinton signed it. It was part of the Brady legislation in honor of President Ronald Reagan's press secretary who was severely wounded in the assassination attempt on Mr. Reagan's life in 1981.

A majority of lawmakers today probably support the ban's extension for a second 10-year period. At the same time, many members would like to avoid offending NRA members with a vote against one of its positions in an election year. The NRA provides candidates at the national and state level with generous campaign donations.

Mr. Bush says he supports renewal of the ban, but has not yet spoken out strongly on the subject. More to the point, he has not told the Republican-controlled Congress that he considers passage of the bill to be essential and urgent, a high priority for him this session. We will assume that Mr. Bush's position, too, reflects an unwillingness to offend the NRA.

Mr. Bush and the Congress have known for a decade that the assault-weapons ban will expire on Sept. 13. To let that mistake occur would be a case of extreme irresponsibility.

The President needs to tell the Republican Congress to pass the bill as soon as lawmakers return. Then he needs to sign it. Neither citizens nor police need to face thugs in the streets armed with assault weapons just because of politicians' cowardice or greed.



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