A decade ago I was privileged to lead a fight with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on what for me has become a deeply personal issue: the federal ban on assault weapons. These killing machines had no place on our streets in 1994 and they have no place now. Yet as the days pass, it is becoming clear that many members of Congress are content to skip through the summer months doing nothing while awaiting this fall's greatest prize -- not the elections, but the sunset of the assault weapons ban.
Ten years after that great victory we are facing the extinction of an important public safety law that was an unusual piece of bipartisan lawmaking. In 1994 I had the support of two men whom I would rarely call my allies, Republican icons Ronald Reagan and Rudy Giuliani. As a result, Congress was able to put public safety ahead of special-interest politics.
What's going on these days, by contrast, is typical political doublespeak. The president speaks publicly in support of the assault weapons ban but refuses to lobby actively for it. The House majority leader, Tom DeLay of Texas, says the president never told him personally that he wants the assault weapons ban renewed, so DeLay isn't going to pass it.
There you have it. The president says he supports the assault weapons ban but refuses to lift a finger for it. And the powerful House majority leader -- who does not support the ban -- is pretending that all it would take to pass it is a word from the president.
This is a tragic development for many reasons, not the least of which is that the public wants this legislation. A new study, "Unconventional Wisdom," by the Consumer Federation of America and the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, found that a substantial majority of likely voters in 10 states support renewing and strengthening the federal assault weapons ban, as do most gun owners and National Rifle Association supporters. The survey found that:
* Voters in Midwestern states supported renewing the assault weapons ban slightly more than those in Southwestern states. Midwestern states (Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Missouri) averaged 72 percent support for renewal. Southwestern states (Arizona and New Mexico) averaged 67 percent. In Florida, 81 percent of likely voters support renewing the ban.
* Rural states, traditionally seen as very conservative on gun issues, strongly favored renewing the ban. Sixty-eight percent of voters in South Dakota and West Virginia support renewal.
* Majorities of gun owners in all but two states favored renewing the ban. Even in those two states, Missouri and Ohio, only slightly less than 50 percent of gun owners and NRA supporters favored renewing the ban.
* In nine of 10 states surveyed, union households supported renewing the ban by at least 60 percent. In Pennsylvania, 80 percent of union households supported renewing the ban and 73 percent supported strengthening it.
* At least 60 percent of current and former military members and military families supported renewing the ban in all states surveyed. In Wisconsin, more than three-fourths (77 percent) of current and former military members and military families support renewing the ban.
In March the Senate passed a renewed ban as an amendment to a gun industry immunity bill, which was the NRA's top legislative priority. President Bush issued a statement of administration policy calling the assault weapons ban amendment "unacceptable." The amendment passed on a bipartisan vote, 52 to 47, but the underlying bill was defeated. It was a stunning loss for the gun lobby. The NRA opposes even a straight renewal of the ban. It maintains that most Americans don't want the ban renewed, let alone strengthened, and that Congress should let the ban expire. Not true.
The gun industry is licking its chops waiting for the ban to expire. In an upcoming report from the Consumer Federation of America, "Back in Business," one assault weapon manufacturer's sales and marketing director told us, "When the AWB sunsets, which I fully expect it to do, we will be manufacturing pre-ban style weapons and shipping them to the general public through distribution systems and dealers the very next day without doubt . . . .We look forward to Sept. 14th with great enthusiasm."
After 19 years in the Senate, I understand differences of opinions, ideologies and constituencies. What I cannot understand is why congressional leaders and the administration think that the American public won't notice that the ban expired. We'll notice, and they'll be sorry.
The writer, a former Democratic senator from Ohio, is chairman of the Consumer Federation of America.