THE SENATE'S dramatic vote for a partial ban on semiautomatic assault weapons was as close as they come: 50 to 49. But the showdown did more than put the Senate on record for a sensible public safety provision strongly supported by law enforcement officials. It demonstrated that reasonable legal protection from certain firearms is not a partisan concern. Republicans as well as Democrats -- asked to choose between the National Rifle Association leadership and the men and women on the front lines of law enforcement -- are finding there's political life after saying no to the weapons that are arming drug cartels in Colombia and ruthless killers here at home.

Republicans as well as Democrats are making crucial distinctions between weapons of terror and weapons of sport and other personal uses. In this vote, many Senate supporters of the NRA -- but not of the all-guns-are-equally-great claptrap of the organization's leaders -- recognized the assault weapon provision as a law-and-order issue in the truest sense. In state legislatures, too, leaders of these safety measures include Republicans as well as Democrats, conservatives as well as liberals, although where there are more gun owners, it does take longer to get beyond age-old "gun control" fears to recognition that anticrime measures does not mean taking everyone's guns away.

The two senators from Virginia -- John Warner, Republican, and Charles Robb, Democrat -- voted to preserve the partial ban on these assault weapons, as did Maryland Democrats Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski. California Republican Pete Wilson, a candidate for governor, voted with them, as did Republicans Alfonse D'Amato of New York, Mark Hatfield of Oregon, James M. Jeffords of Vermont, Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas and Bob Packwood of Oregon. Among the Democrats, Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine and Lloyd Bentsen of Texas also found a difference between this measure, which they supported, and others that they have opposed.

How the protections will come out of Capitol Hill is still uncertain. But add to everything the shamelessly illogical position of the Bush administration -- that imports of certain foreign weapons are out of order, but sales of U.S. versions of those weapons are fine -- and support for a consistent ban should gather even more weight.