ST. LOUIS -- Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry yesterday charged that President Bush and Vice President Cheney were ''trying to scare Americans" with the threat of terrorism while making it possible for Al Qaeda to stockpile weapons in the United States by allowing the ban on assault weapons to lapse.
''The 9/11 commission and other reports have shown that Al Qaeda wanted to come into America, and in the Al Qaeda manual of terror, they were telling people to go out and buy assault weapons," Kerry told about 250 voters at a community center in the battleground state of Missouri.
Bush and Cheney are ''out there talking about the war on terror, trying to scare Americans," Kerry added. ''We've got a war, and we've got a problem. But we should do more than just talk about it and try to scare people about it and make it a political issue."
During the 2000 campaign, Bush said he would sign an extension of the ban on assault weapons, but he has not done so, because Congress has sent him nothing to sign this year. The ban expires at midnight Monday and opponents and supporters of the restriction agree that there is virtually no chance Congress will act to extend it. Republican leaders say the White House has not asked them to schedule a vote on the legislation.
Kerry, echoing other backers of the ban, accused Bush of bowing to his allies at the National Rifle Association and avoiding the politically loaded issue by leaving it to Congress.
Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said yesterday that the president's position on the ban on assault weapons was ''clear" and he had ''an exceptional record of enforcing gun laws," while Kerry has received an F rating from the NRA and Gun Owners of America.
According to a survey released Monday by the nonpartisan National Annenberg Election Survey, 68 percent of Americans, including a third of NRA members and 57 percent of people with a gun in their households, support the ban, which outlaws 19 types of military-style assault weapons. The ban, which President Clinton signed into law in 1994, also outlaws the manufacture and sale of magazines that can feed more than 10 rounds at a time and be attached to military-style weapons.
The Kerry campaign made a last-minute decision yesterday to draw attention to the gun ban's expiration in Missouri, where the president campaigned for two days this week and holds a lead in polls. A CNN/USA Today poll this week gave Bush a 14-point lead in Missouri, which he carried in 2000 and offers 11 electoral votes to the victory. The St. Louis NBC affiliate released a poll last night giving Bush a two-point edge over Kerry, 48 percent to 46 percent.
Kerry strategists wanted to inject their position into the debate about the weapons ban and said their arguments might play well among Missouri voters who enjoy recreational gun use, given that Kerry introduced himself to the audience as a hunter and gun owner ''who will support and never take away that Second Amendment."
Law enforcement officials and gun control activists -- including former White House press secretary James Brady, who was shot during the 1981 attempt on President Reagan's life -- have been pressuring Congress to extend the ban. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has run full-page ads picturing Osama bin Laden and quoting from an Al Qaeda training manual that notes the availability of assault weapons in the United States. ''Terrorists of 9-11 can hardly wait for 9-13," the ad warns.
The NRA endorsed Bush in 2000 and will decide over the next few weeks whether to make an endorsement in the current race, said Andrew Arulanandam, the NRA's director of public affairs. He declined to say whether the NRA would pass on Bush this year if he signed an extension to the ban.
Yesterday evening, Kerry flew to Allentown, Pa., for a rally with about 10,000 voters. At the airport beforehand, he met privately with several 9/11 widows from New Jersey, who, he later told the Allentown crowd, complained that the administration seemed gripped by Iraq when Al Qaeda was responsible for the deaths of their spouses.
Kerry plans to attend a commemoration ceremony this morning at the Boston Opera House to mark the third anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Healy reported with Kerry in St. Louis and Allentown, Milligan from Washington. Patrick Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.