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Federal Assault Weapons Ban Set to Expire

September 9, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: Ten years ago, President Clinton signed an assault weapons ban into law. It outlawed 19 types of military-style semiautomatic assault weapons, as well as ammunition clips holding more than ten rounds.

But the law had a built-in sunset clause, and it expires next Monday. Yesterday, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said the president “supports the reauthorization of current law,” and would sign a bill if it came to him. But, McClellan added, “The president doesn’t control the congressional timetable.” New York Sen. Charles Schumer responded to that today.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: Well, if you believe that, I have got a bridge in Brooklyn that I want to sell you. When the president wants something to come on the floor, the Republican leadership puts it on.

MARGARET WARNER: Senate and House Republican leaders have refused to schedule a debate or vote on extending the ban. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was asked yesterday, if the president asked him to do so, would he let the bill come to the floor?

REP. TOM DeLAY: No, I would not. There’s not the votes to pass the bill. If the president asked me, I would tell him the same thing.

MARGARET WARNER: We take up the debate now over extending the assault weapons ban with two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee: Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, an original sponsor of the 1994 assault weapons law; and Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, former chairman of the Republican Policy Committee; he also sits on the board of the National Rifle Association. Welcome to you both.

Sen. Craig, the polls show widespread public support for extending this ban; two-thirds of Americans, even some 60 percent of Republicans. Why won’t the Republican leadership let this come for a vote?

SEN. LARRY CRAIG: Well, you only pass laws or bring existing laws and extend their effectiveness or their legality if they work. Less than 3 percent of crimes in this country where firearms were used involved a semi-auto before the ban went in, in ’94; less than 3 percent today. It was a political placebo at the time. It has shown its ineffectiveness. It has a sunset clause. And we’re going to allow it to pass away.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Feinstein, a political placebo?

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Well, Sen. Craig can get me very upset sometimes, and I think his view on this is diametrically opposed to mine. There is no question that the people want this bill extended.

There is no question that gun traces to crimes committed with assault weapons have declined, and there is no question that the number of assault weapons available in gun stores, in gun shows, on street corners, have also declined. Coincidentally, but I’m not saying it’s attributable to this, crime has also declined.

Now, I just appeal to the common sense of Americans all across this great country. Do military-style assault weapons belong on the streets of our cities? Do they belong in a place where they can be bought by terrorists, by gang-bangers, by grievance killers and by criminals?

I think they don’t, and I think the people of this country in poll after poll, from anywhere from two-thirds to three-fourths, have said, we agree with you. We want this extended across every demographic group, –

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. So Senator -

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: — including gun owners, incidentally.

MARGARET WARNER: If you have that kind of public support, why haven’t you been able to get a vote on this? What are the politics behind this?

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Well, we had a vote in the Senate on a bill that provided protection from liability to gun manufacturers. And we got 52 votes in March in the Senate. The National Rifle Association said, oh, my, take down the whole bill.

And so the Senate, I think in a shameful display of cowardice and an inability to respond to a special interest, took down the whole bill. The House of Representatives has taken no action. The president of the United States has said he supports extension of the assault weapons legislation. If you support it, help us get this job done. And he won’t do it.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Sen. Craig?

SEN. LARRY CRAIG: I think it would be fair to say the president of the United States supports a lot of things, like a national energy policy that has been blocked in this Senate by Democrats. He supports a variety of other things that have been blocked this year.

Statistically, Dianne just is inaccurate. Crime has dramatically dropped starting in 1991 till today. The bill was passed in ’94. The statistics I gave you before 94 — 3 percent — the statistics I gave you after ’94 — 3 percent — are accurate. The trace information is fraudulent, simply because of what you trace and how you trace it and how the traces are requested.

Here is the thing I think is fascinating– law enforcement, prosecution of crime in which a gun was used, has dramatically gone up in the last three years during the Bush administration some 65 to 70 percent. And as a result, crime where a gun is used in the commission of has dropped precipitously. In New York City, this year they will announce one of the lowest crime rates where a gun is used in violent crime ever in its 25-year recording period.

MARGARET WARNER: I’m not sure I’m going to get you two to agree on statistics, because there are statistics on both sides, but let me ask you, Sen. Craig, do you believe that if this vote were to come to the Senate again, an up and down vote, given what happened in March, that, in fact, it would pass?

SEN. LARRY CRAIG: It probably would pass by one vote. It’s very difficult to say. It might be a tie vote. But the House will not pass it. They have said so openly and directly and the votes… they have a 100-vote margin in the House to kill this very bad Clinton gun ban.

So why in some three weeks of time left before adjournment would we waste our time when we have not even put a budget out yet or have we handled our appropriation bills with a very limited time factor and why pass something that will not become law and will fail in the House? We have choices to –

MARGARET WARNER: All right.

SEN. LARRY CRAIG: — make and priorities, and I think our leader has handled the priorities well.

MARGARET WARNER: So Sen. Feinstein, that question to you: Is it — would it be futile for the Senate to take it up when the House vote, Sen. Craig says, is pretty much foreordained?

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Well, you know, I don’t know where ever we decide things before there’s a vote. I say let there be a vote. And I say the president, if he supports it, should do what presidents do, which is twist arms to get a vote.

Now, let me tell you what I think is going to happen: There is a shipment of AK-47s that was picked up in Italy by customs that was on its way from a port in Romania of 8,000 AK-47s due to go into the port of New York into a gun store in Georgia. It was a $7 million shipment. You can multiply that tenfold. And you will see these weapons begin to spring up all over and the big clips which add the firepower and the ability to kill substantial numbers of people before you can get to the gunner to disarm him.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Craig, will that be the impact of — if this ban ends on Monday, do you agree with Sen. Feinstein that we’ll see a lot of these sold in this country?

SEN. LARRY CRAIG: Well, she speaks in very dramatic and impassioned language. There are 30 million semiautomatic weapons owned by law-abiding citizens in this country today — 30 million; not 8,000, not 7,000, 30 million. They are owned and operated lawfully and legally by citizens who owned them prior to the ban. They are not in the traffic of crime today. Less than 3 percent of them ever appear there. Those are the facts.

MARGARET WARNER: But do you think there will be a very vigorous sale of these?

SEN. LARRY CRAIG: Any time you lift a ban, if you had banned Lincoln automobiles for five years and you lifted the ban, there would be a pent-up demand in the marketplace for anything. Americans own firearms. More Americans today and more women than ever own a firearm for self-protection, and yet crime by the use of a firearm has dramatically dropped and is continuing to drop because the law enforcement community goes after those who in illegal fashion use a firearm.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me see if I can return this now to politics in the two minutes which we have left.

And Sen. Feinstein, beginning with you, what role is election-year politics playing in the difficulty you all are having getting this to a vote? And I’m talking about both in the presidential campaign level and also particularly with House members and even Senate members.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Yes, I think it plays a role. I think the president wants to have it both ways. I support it; the National Rifle Association won’t endorse him until after the ban expires. House members I think are worried that they will be targeted by the NRA.

And the NRA has been successful in defeating some House members back in 1994, namely Jack Brooks who was chairman of Judiciary at the time, for letting it come up, and then secondly Tom Foley, the speaker, for letting it come up to the floor. So this is a very, very difficult atmosphere.

I would point this out: The bill has been in place, the law of the land, for ten years. The NRA has never challenged its constitutionality, has never taken a case to court that it violates the Second Amendment. And the reason is because it doesn’t.

Secondly, they’ve said it is cosmetic, it’s ineffective. Sen. Craig reflected some of that tonight. But the fact of the matter is it has worked. It has decreased over time the supply of these weapons.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. Let me turn to Sen. Craig on the politics question. Is Sen. Feinstein right, Sen. Craig, that, in fact, the NRA is implicitly or explicitly threatening to target members who might vote for this or members who might bring it up and that it is even holding the endorsement question in the presidential race open as a way of just keeping that over the president’s head?

SEN. LARRY CRAIG: Well, Dianne is wrong on her figures and she’s also wrong on her politics. The NRA, to my knowledge, rarely endorses presidential candidates because it is a bipartisan organization. And it supports Democrat and Republican members of Congress or candidates for Congress, House and Senate who are active and pro supporters of our Constitution and Second Amendment rights.

If they are for gun control and gun control of the Clinton gun ban kind that we’re talking about here, then they are opposed by the NRA and NRA’s members are asked to vote against them. That is simple and open and fair politics in this country. It just so happens that in about 50 to 60 percent of the issues that NRA speaks out on, the majority of the American people are with the National Rifle Association on those issues.

And here we have a law that has not demonstrated its effectiveness. It was a politically charged law in ’94 when it was passed. Finally Americans woke up to the fact that they were being inhibited or controlled from owning what should be a legal firearm. And they’ve reacted to it by saying, “don’t reauthorize it.” It will pass away on Monday as it should, and Americans will be once again free in a law-abiding fashion to own this type of firearm.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Let me just say something.

MARGARET WARNER: I’m sorry -

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: You know, he’s saying the people want it to expire. That is just plain wrong. Every single poll has shown two-thirds to three-fourths of the American people want the bill to continue. That’s a fact, Larry.

SEN. LARRY CRAIG: Until you define what’s in the bill and the type of…

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Oh, that’s baloney.

MARGARET WARNER: All right.

SEN. LARRY CRAIG: Well, I don’t deal with baloney, neither does Dianne. We disagree on this issue.

MARGARET WARNER: I can see that. And thank you both very much.

SEN. LARRY CRAIG: Thank you.