John F. Kerry blasted President Bush yesterday for allowing the ban on semiautomatic weapons to expire, as the Democratic nominee intensified his attack on the president's character, consistency and commitment to fighting terrorism.
In a small gymnasium at the Thurgood Marshall Center in Washington, surrounded by police officers and politicians including D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, Kerry accused Bush of helping put dangerous weapons in the hands of terrorists by refusing to fight for an extension of the ban on semiautomatic weapons. The ban expired yesterday.
"For the first time in 10 years, when a killer walks in a gun shop, when a terrorist goes to a gun show somewhere in America, if they want to purchase an AK-47 or some other military assault weapon, they are going to hear one word -- sure," Kerry said. "Today George Bush chose to make the job of terrorists easier and make the job of police officers harder, and that's just plain wrong." Kerry based this charge on information in the Sept. 11 commission report that terrorists are encouraged to purchase assault weapons in the United States.
Bush had said he supported the law, but he did not pressure the GOP-led Congress to extend the 10-year ban on 19 firearm models that was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994. Kerry said he will fight to reinstate the ban if he is elected president, though some congressional Democrats and most Republicans oppose it.
Under pressure from Democrats inside and outside his campaign to sharpen criticism of Bush, Kerry is stealing a page from the president with broadsides aimed at his opponent's honesty and ability to combat terrorism. In the past week, Kerry has sought to link Bush's policies on North Korea, Iraq and even gun control to an increased threat of a nuclear attack or domestic terror.
In an interview with the New York Times on Sunday, Kerry accused Bush of letting "a nuclear nightmare" take root in North Korea. In his stump speech, Kerry has added a strong condemnation of Bush's Iraq policy, saying the president has made numerous "catastrophic" decisions on the war. It is all about exposing Bush's "character flaws," said David Wade, a Kerry spokesman.
Kerry will seek to shift the debate this week back to domestic issues with a speech in Milwaukee today on rising Medicare costs and with what aides are calling his biggest economic speech of the fall in Detroit tomorrow. A focus of both events will be painting Bush as a leader who has promised one thing, delivered another and cannot be trusted, Wade said.
Although they play down Kerry's drop in national polls, his advisers privately say they are most concerned about the growing perception of Bush as a stronger and more honest wartime leader.
In his speech in Washington yesterday, Kerry faulted Bush for proposing deep cuts to the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) that was designed to put an extra 100,000 police officers on the streets. Bush has proposed reducing funding from $482 million to $97 million next year. Kerry said police officers are "tired of a president who takes cops off the street with one hand and puts . . . military assault weapons back on with the other." He said he would fully fund the COPS program.
As part of $5 billion crime-fighting package, Kerry said he would target gang violence with stepped-up enforcement and prevention programs; hire 5,000 additional prosecutors over five years; increase scrutiny of purchases at gun shows; enforce existing gun laws; and target interstate gun trafficking. Kerry said he would fund the programs by extending custom fees, though, as the Bush campaign pointed out, the Democratic nominee promised earlier this year to use money raised from custom fees for other programs.
Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said the president's crime-fighting plan focuses on enforcement of existing laws, in part, by spending more money on prosecutors. "The issue here really goes to what are we doing to reduce violence committed with guns," McClellan said.
The Justice Department reported Sunday that the rate of property and violent crimes remained at a 30-year low in 2003. Kerry said the statistics are proof the gun ban is working, though experts say it has had a negligible effect on crime rates.