The margin could barely have been smaller - 216 in favour of the ban, against 214 opposed to it. Had not one member changed his vote a few moments before the Speaker, Tom Foley, declared the result, the outcome would have been a tie. Last night gun control advocates from President Clinton down, were claiming a historic victory. For Mr Clinton, again facing allegations about his private life, the triumph was timely.
A similar measure has been passed by the Senate as part of an omnibus crime bill approved late last year. Passage in the House means the ban will be in the final version which Mr Clinton will sign into law, perhaps as early as this month.
Despite an impassioned campaign by the entire administration, until the last the odds were that opponents of gun control would carry the day. Instead, the manufacture and sale of weapons like the AK-47, the Uzi pistol, and a variety of other rapid-fire, large magazine weapons will be outlawed. Earlier this week, former presidents Carter, Ford and Reagan added their voices to those urging a ban. Several southern Democrats who would normally have opposed the measure joined them.