Gun controls in America crumble as 10-year ban on assault weapons ends

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The Independent US

Despite widespread support across America, the US law barring semi-automatic assault weapons from being sold is set to expire on Monday, opening the way for gun manufacturers to resume marketing rifles and handguns that have been banned for 10 years.

Despite widespread support across America, the US law barring semi-automatic assault weapons from being sold is set to expire on Monday, opening the way for gun manufacturers to resume marketing rifles and handguns that have been banned for 10 years.

The move overturns the cornerstone of the US gun-control movement, the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban which was signed by President Bill Clinton, allowing gun makers to resume selling 19 kinds of weapon previously banned.

A result of the powerful political influence of the National Rifle Association as well as the complicated cross-currents of an election year, the legislation has lapsed because the Republican-controlled Congress has refused to set aside time to renew it. President George Bush, who in 2000 said he supported the ban, has declined to press his allies on Capitol Hill to give it new life.

Critics say the US is failing to pay attention to the largest source of violence on its own shores while expending all its energies on curbing violence from terrorists abroad. The law banned the sale of assault weapons such as Uzi rifles, Kalashnikovs and TEC-9 semi-automatic handguns used in the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado.

Data is mixed on how effective the ban has been. Loopholes have allowed gun makers to market similar kinds of weapons with a few modifications. One recent survey, however, found a 66 per cent drop in crimes in which assault weapons were used. At the least, the law sent a signal that America was beginning to take gun control seriously. It seemed like the first step.

The law covered guns equipped with military-style features deemed unnecessary for using them in game-hunting - such as flash suppressors and collapsing stocks. It also banned weapons with magazines bearing more than 10 rounds.

The withering of the legislation has coincided with an unprecedented legal settlement being signed arising from the sniper rampage in the Washington DC area two years ago. The families of eight victims are set to receive $2.5m (£1.4m) in damages from the maker of the Bushmaster XM-15 rifle used in the shooting spree and from the dealer who supplied it to the two convicted snipers. "It is the first time a gun maker has paid damages for negligence leading to the criminal use of a gun," said Dennis Henigan of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Set up by James Brady, the former White House spokes-man who was shot in the head during the 1981 assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, and his wife Sarah, the Center is at the forefront of those who are lambasting Congress and Mr Bush over the assault-weapons ban. Last week, it ran full-page advertisements in national newspapers squarely placing the blame on the President.

Mr Brady, still wheelchair-bound, was present at a press conference on Capitol Hill earlier this week aimed at shaming Congress and the White House. Also attending was Tom Mauser, whose 15-year-old son, Daniel, was killed at Columbine High School. He appeared wearing his son's track shoes and took them off while addressing reporters, a gesture to symbolise the loss he suffered.

Another Columbine parent, Rick Townsend, who lost his daughter, Lauren, also spoke out from his home in Colorado. "That's the weapon that killed my daughter," he said referring to the TEC-9 handguns that will be legal again. "I can't believe they're not even considering extending the ban. I don't know why anyone needs a 50-shot or 75-shot magazine except for killing someone," he said.

John Kerry, the Democratic candidate for the presidency, was photographed a week ago brandishing a hunting rifle. The image was presumably meant to reassure gun-owners fearful of Democrats who favour gun control. However, aides to the Senator insisted that he supported the assault-weapons ban being renewed and that he will schedule an event on Monday to denounce its expiry.

The Violence Policy Center, which has championed the ban, said that FBI data from 1998 to 2001 showed that, while the banned weapons accounted for only 1 to 2 per cent of weapons circulating in the US, they were used in 20 per cent of all killings of police officers. The group also says that terrorist training manuals found in Afghanistan and on websites urge terrorists to go to the US for their weapons.

A poll released last week by the National Annenberg Election Survey said 68 per cent of Americans support renewing the ban. "How did we get in this Alice-in-Wonderland situation of repealing a law that everyone agrees has been so successful?" asked Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York.

Democrats have not been as vocal as might have been expected, however. This may be because of memories of Congressional elections in 1994 just after the ban was signed. The party lost 52 seats in the House and Mr Clinton speculated that many may have turned Republican because of popular opposition to gun control and the ban.