A sensible policy became a political casualty this week as the federal ban on assault weapons was allowed to lapse.
The 1994 law, signed by former President Bill Clinton, banned 19 types of weapons, mostly of the rapid fire, multiple -rounds variety. The law had a sunset clause that it would expire in 10 years if Congress did not renew it. On Monday, the 10-year period expired with no action from Congress.
Numerous politicians -- from President Bush to House minority leader Nancy Pelosi -- said they supported the ban. Sen. John Kerry even tried to make it a campaign issue. But apparently no one in a position of influence supported the ban enough to make the effort to extend it. Bush said it was Congress' problem. Pelosi said it was important but not a priority. Kerry weighed in with too little, too late.
The assault weapons ban prevented the manufacture and sale of military-style combat weapons -- semi-automatic rifles, shotguns or pistols designed to spray large numbers of bullets in a rapid fashion. It banned large magazine clips that allowed shooters to rip off shot after shot after shot without reloading. It banned pistol grips that made it easier to fire from the hip. It banned folding stocks that allowed shooters to conceal their weapons easily before whipping them out in a crowd. It banned flash suppressors that made it easy for shooters to conceal their locations. It banned rifles with grenade launchers and bayonet mounts. It banned the Tec- 9, Tec Dc-9, Tec 22, AK-47, Streetsweeper and the Striker-12.
Polling showed that 78 percent of the American public agreed with the ban, including 57 percent of gun owners. No one should be surprised by such results. Shouldn't there be limits on weapons designed specifically to serve the needs of gangs, terrorists and those bent on mass murder?
Not everyone thinks so. The National Rifle Association doesn't want the limits because the NRA thinks the assault weapons ban is an incremental step toward increased gun control. Other critics argue that the assault weapons ban isn't effective, that criminals and killers can get their hands on such assault weapons, as the shootings at Columbine High School proved. And it is true that gun manufacturers have found loopholes in the law and produced weapons that essentially mock the ban.
But that's all the more reason our leaders in Washington should have strengthened the law, closed the loopholes and re-authorized the ban. Instead, they did nothing.
Sadly, they did nothing because it suited their political interests, even if it didn't suit their constituents' interests. Republicans, even those who agreed with the ban, weren't about to do anything to disrupt the significant flow of funding from the NRA in an election year. Many Democrats -- particularly in the South and West -- shied away from the assault weapons ban, fearing it could cost them votes.
On Monday, members of Congress made it easier to purchase a Tec-9 with a 30-round clip. They could have -- they should have -- done better by the people they represent.