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House Narrowly Approves Ban on Assault Weapons

By Kenneth J. Cooper
The Washington Post

The House Thursday narrowly approved a ban on 19 assault weapons, recognizing the American public's increasing fear over violent crime and rewarding President Clinton's aggressive lobbying for the gun ban.

The 216 to 214 vote was a major defeat for the National Rifle Association (NRA). Clinton said supporters of the ban had "demonstrated extraordinary courage in the face of extraordinary political pressure to walk away."

"It will mean that our streets will be safer," said Rep. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., chief sponsor of the bill. "It says to America that special interests can be beaten."

A roll call on the legislation came to a dramatic conclusion when Rep. Andrew Jacobs, D-Ind., switched his vote to favor the ban and two Democrats expected to oppose the ban, freshman Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., and retiring Rep. Douglas Applegate, D-Ohio, voted for it, providing the margin for passage. Applegate's decision came after the official voting period ended and supporters erupted in applause as he filled out a green card, signifying a "yes" vote.

Jacobs, a Marine veteran and former police officer, said he changed his mind on "my own reflection" because a little-noticed provision would ban the large gun clips that he considers more of a problem than military-style semiautomatic weapons. "It just dawned on me it was my only opportunity to ban the large magazines which I think are the problem," he said.

The legislation was supported by 177 Democrats, 38 Republicans and Rep. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., and opposed by 137 Republicans and 77 Democrats. One unexpected supporter was retiring Minority Leader Robert H. Michel, R-Ill., a World War II infantryman who previously voted against another proposed ban on some assault weapons.

"They may have their place in war time, but certainly not on our streets in peace time," Michel explained later. "When our police need to increase their firepower so that they can match the firepower of criminals, it is time to ban assault weapons."

Public opinion surveys have indicated about 80 percent support for a ban on assault weapons, which are used in a miniscule percentage of murders nationwide but have been tied to an increasing number of crimes. The weapons have been involved in sensational shootings at a Stockton, Calif. schoolyard, the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex. and the Central Intelligence headquarters in Reston.

The close vote followed an afternoon of debate in which both sides evoked emotional symbols. Proponents said the ban would help protect police and children from deadly firepower in the hands of criminals. Opponents argued that the ban would not reduce crime but would prevent citizens from protecting themselves and exercising constitutionally-protected rights of gun ownership.

Among critics of a ban, Rep. Jack Fields, R-Texas, said he owns a target-shooting rifle that would be banned because it has a 30-round clip, pistol grip and a collapsible stock. "This legislation is wrong. It is morally wrong. It is constitutionally wrong," he said.

Heightened public anxiety about violence tightened the balance of votes on assault weapons since the House rejected a similar ban by 70 votes in 1991. Wording that made more explicit which weapons would be prohibited won over several opponents of the 1991 ban.

Another difference from 1991 was the vigorous lobbying by the Democratic administration. Clinton, following up his endorsement of an assault weapons ban in his State of the Union address, joined Vice President Gore and cabinet members in making calls to lawmakers and focusing media attention on the legislation. A week ago, supporters were at least 15 to 20 votes short.

Traditionally, the House has resisted gun control more than the Senate because of the opposition stoked by the NRA. The smaller constituencies that House members represent make them much more vulnerable politically than senators to a motivated, organized group such as hunters and sporting enthusiasts.

The House bill would ban the manufacture, importation and transfer of 19 semiautomatic assault weapons, including AK-47s and Uzis. It would also ban copycat models and semiautomatic weapons with more than one assault-style feature such as a pistol grip or high-capacity, detachable magazine. Gun clips holding more than 10 bullets would also be prohibited.

Possession of the banned weapons and clips would be prohibited although those now in lawful ownership would be exempt from the ban. Also specifically exempted would be about 650 rifles commonly used for hunting or target shooting.

House Judiciary Chairman Jack Brooks, D-Tex., said that the vote on the assault weapons ban cleared the way for a House-Senate conference on omnibus crime legislation, which congressional leaders hope to send to Clinton before Memorial Day.