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WEB EXCLUSIVE | THOMAS OLIPHANT

Politics and the assault weapons ban

WASHINGTON As any trained terrorist or criminal knows, Sept. 13 is a banner day this year, the moment when assault weapons will once again be legal after a decade of government controls on these weapons of choice.

The National Rifle Association, which hates government control above all, will also be celebrating the apparently inevitable expiration of a ban that has worked.

Unlike desperate demagogues like Dick Cheney this week, I wouldn't dream of taking the obvious cheap shot of linking my ideological opponents to terrorists and criminals (as Cheney did by saying that the wrong vote in November could set the stage for another attack on the United States). It's more accurate to say that the NRA's antigovernment ideology along with terrorists and criminals have a coincidental but identical hope where the 10-year-old assault weapons ban is concerned.

Their hopes are about to be realized. The US Senate last spring recorded 52 votes for an extension of the ban on 19 types of these people killers and related controls. House Speaker Dennis Hastert has refused to allow the House to vote on the issue because an extension would probably pass narrowly there as well. Time is simply going to run out.

President Bush says he favors an extension, which he also said he favored as a candidate four years ago. He has, however, refused to make a single phone call or twist a single arm in furtherance of his alleged position, which means that he is willing to let the ban on these weapons expire. In a slight twist on what he might say of John Kerry these days, you could say Bush favored the ban before he helped kill it.

On the Senate floor this week, the mother of the ban, California Senator Dianne Feinstein, offered an example of what America can look forward to. A fellow appeared on the street in the small, northern Ohio town of Geneva this week with what is now an illegal 50-bullet clip on his gun and started shooting - less than 200 yards from an elementary school. Before he apparently shot himself to death, the man managed to wound three people. Next week, clips with more than 10 rounds in them will be legal. Such incidents under the ban fell dramatically; watch them rise again.

As Feinstein also noted, the gun makers are gearing up to peddle their wares anew - which will be legal as semi-automatic weapons, though experts say the adjustments needed to convert to fully automatic are well within most people's competence. In their effort to extend the ban, police departments all over the country make this point all the time. The examples are rather well known to all sides in the unending fight, but less well known to the public.

My favorite involved the seizure, for paperwork irregularities, of a Turkish ship in Italy that was on its way late last spring to American ports. The ship, the MS Adnan Bayraktar out of Romania, was carrying 7,500 to 8,000 assault weapons. Linked to the shipment was one of the major gun outfits in the United States, Florida-based Century International Arms - don't you love the CIA in the name? - which maintains a large warehouse near the Canadian border in Fairfax, Vt. File that one under Getting Ready.

In addition, a well-known Illinois gun company, ArmaLite, is pushing consumers not only to order assault weapons now for shipment after the ban expires, but also to add bayonets and even flash suppressors to their weapons. I can't quite figure out how a flash suppressor helps a hunter just because the deer can't see where the shot is coming from, but it sure helps a crook, which is why they were previously banned.

The NRA, in case no one has noticed, has yet to endorse Bush for reelection. The cover story is that the politically skilled gun lobby was waiting until each party's convention had ended before making its choice. The real story is that if the assault weapons ban expires, Bush will get endorsed, and the first board of directors meeting to discuss endorsement will take place this weekend.

The conventional wisdom is that guns are off everybody's table this election season; there is much evidence that Al Gore's tough stance on handguns hurt him in 2000 in states like West Virginia, Missouri, and New Hampshire.

This view is powerfully refuted, however, by data assembled by the Annenberg Center at the University of Pennsylvania, whose massive polling this year has shed light on several important questions. The truth is that assault weapons, as opposed to handguns, are an issue that splits Republicans, unites Democrats, and even divides the NRA.

In a sample of nearly 5,000 people during August, extending the ban was supported by 68 percent of the respondents overall, including 61 percent of the Republicans, 62 percent of conservatives, 57 percent of people in gun-owning households, and even 32 percent of NRA members.

The ban, however, will expire. Bush will get his endorsement. And people are going to die.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com. 

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