Monday, February 23, 2004

The Senate will begin another debate on federal gun laws this week, and at least one issue may put it at odds with Republicans in the other chamber.

A Republican-led bill to immunize gun makers from wrongful-death claims is expected to hit the floor tomorrow, but Democrats and liberal Republicans will propose an amendment to extend the federal assault-weapons ban, possibly setting up a showdown with the House.

President Bush supports the assault-weapons proposal as well as the overall immunity bill.

“With regard to the assault-weapons ban, he supports the extension of the current ban,” White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said. “On immunity, he doesn’t believe manufacturers of a legal product should be held liable for the illegal use of that product.”

The assault-weapons ban, signed in 1994 by President Clinton, outlawed the sale, import or manufacture of semiautomatic firearms with certain combinations of military-style features, such as bayonet mounts and flash suppressors.

The ban is set to expire Sept. 13, and a split could arise between the White House and House Republicans backed by some of the conservative movement’s most powerful interest groups.

The president wants the extension to make good on his 2000 campaign promise to continue the “common sense” legislation. But he also wants to protect the gun industry from trial lawyers, a position supported by the National Rifle Association.

“Our position is very clear. This is not about extending the Clinton gun ban and it shouldn’t muddy the waters,” said Wayne LaPierre, NRA executive vice president.

“The issue is, do we want to save the American gun industry or kill it … and we oppose any expansion of the Clinton semiautomatic gun ban,” Mr. LaPierre said.

House Republican leadership has vowed to see the ban expire. And the friction between House and Senate Republicans over legislative compromises on the energy and Medicare bills could worsen if the bill for gun makers’ immunity enters the House chamber with unwanted amendments.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said last year that there weren’t enough votes in the House to reauthorize the ban, and he has vowed not to fight for votes to push the legislation.

But Senate Democrats will not let the immunity proposal pass without extending the ban and may hold the overall bill hostage using amendments.

Howard Gantman, spokesman for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, said the California Democrat “has said that she would offer this bill [as an amendment] to the Republican gun-liability bill.”

Mrs. Feinstein introduced a bill last year to extend the ban. It had several co-sponsors, including Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, and has the support of federal and local law enforcement agencies.

“We’ve urged President Bush to push this,” Mr. Gantman said.

There also are bills to strengthen the assault-weapons ban by adding to the list of weapons defined as prohibited, although the chance of passing is slim in the Senate and practically nil in the House.

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, New York Democrat, introduced a bill in May to place more guns on that list. A similar bill in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Frank R. Lautenburg, New Jersey Democrat, is expected to hit the floor this week.

Scott Roliston, a spokesman for Mrs. McCarthy, said his boss would bring more amendments to the gun bill.

“Congresswoman McCarthy ran for office for stricter gun laws. The president said he would sign an assault-weapons ban if it got to his desk. He has 208 days to do this, and it is going to be an issue,” Mr. Roliston said.

A final wrinkle in the debate will be a bill from Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, for tighter regulation of the private sale of firearms at gun shows. Federal laws and those of numerous states require licensed gun dealers to conduct thorough criminal background checks of buyers, but guns sold by individuals at shows require no extensive checks.

Lobbyists say the proposed regulation, also opposed by gun-rights groups, has the votes to pass the Senate, either on its own or as an amendment to the gun makers’ immunity bill. Its prospects in the House are less clear.

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