Senate votes to ban assault weapons, hurries crime bill



WASHINGTON (AP)—Heeding the nation’s rising concern over street violence, the Senate voted Wednesday to ban the manufacture or sale of 19 types of assault-style weapons—bullet-spraying firearms that mimic those intended for combat.

The ban, stiffer than any previously passed by either house of Congress, was approved despite the opposition of the National Rifle Association. The action came as the Senate neared passage of a $22.3 billion anti-crime bill that would put more police on the streets and build new prisons.

NRA spokesman William McIntyre said the 56-43 vote on the assault-style ban reflected the ‘‘misguided’‘ view ‘‘that these sort of gun control measures, gun bans, will have an impact on violent crime.’‘

Attorney General Janet Reno endorsed the measure, saying that removing the weapons from the street is ‘‘going to be a first big step’‘ and a sign that ‘‘America’s love affair with guns is coming to an end.’‘

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden, Jr., challenged the House—which has never voted for an assault-weapons ban—to ‘‘understand the power of the idea, the idea whose time has come.’‘

‘‘It still will be an uphill fight in the House, but I believe the way it’s moving, I believe this will pass,’‘ Biden told reporters.

Rep. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. and chairman of the House Judiciary crime panel, was doubtful about the ban’s prospects in the House.

‘‘We’re currently about 40 votes short,’‘ Schumer said in an interview. ‘‘It amazes me that when violence is rampant and assault weapons are killing kids that we’re so far down, but we are. Hopefully, people will let Congress know how they feel over the winter break.’‘

Last week, the same measure barely survived in the Senate, 51-49.

The assault-style weapons ban was among the final amendments to be considered before the Senate votes Thursday morning on the full crime bill, which would then go to the House.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole seemed to clear the way Wednesday night for that floor vote by tentatively agreeing not to introduce an amendment that would gut the Brady handgun control bill, which is scheduled for floor action as a separate measure when the crime bill is done.

The Brady bill, named for former presidential press secretary James Brady, who was severely wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan, would impose a five-day waiting period and a background check on all would-be handgun purchasers.

When background information is sufficiently computerized to enable instant checks, the waiting period would be phased out. But checks would then be done on buyers of both handguns and long guns.

The House last week passed its version that included an NRA-backed amendment requiring the waiting period to phase out after five years, regardless of whether the instant-checks are up and running.

Biden deliberately kept Brady separate from the Senate crime bill to prevent one from dragging down the other.

However, Dole was prepared to introduce an amendment to the crime bill that would include a version of Brady but with even further limits than the House approved. As of late Wednesday, Dole was expected to offer it instead during consideration of the separate Brady bill.

Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell said Congress probably would have to wait until early next year to send a final compromise crime bill to President Clinton. A recent poll showed that many Americans consider crime a more important problem than unemployment or health care.

Assault-style weapons have such features as pistol grips which allow weapons to be spray fired from the hip.

‘‘Fear has escalated in this country to a level I never thought possible,’‘ said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the author of the gun ban. She said the provision ‘‘addresses a fundamental right of all Americans to feel safe.’‘

But Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and a member of the NRA board, dismissed the anti-crime significance of the bill, calling it ‘‘mere political window-dressing because less than 1 percent of gun-related crimes are committed with this type of firearm. The only way to win the war on crime is to lock up the criminal.’‘

Feinstein’s proposal would stop the manufacture or sale and possession of 19 specified semiautomatic assault weapons and bar production of copycat models. But more than 650 hunting weapons would be exempted by name. People already owning the assault weapons would not be required to give them up.

The House has passed separate crime bills, differing in content. For example, the House bill earmarks $3.45 billion over six years to help cities put 50,000 more police on the street. The Senate’s has $8.9 billion for 100,000 police officers over five years.

The Senate’s get-tough-on-crime mood was evident in a 73-26 vote defeating a proposal by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., to substitute mandatory life imprisonment without parole for the measure’s many death penalty provisions.

Over Biden’s opposition, the Senate approved, 74-25, a provision offered by Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, R-N.Y., that would make it easier to impose the death penalty on someone identified as a ‘‘drug kingpin.’‘

Under the new standards, the kingpin would not have to be responsible for any specific killing. But he or she would face capital punishment when drug quantities are so large there is an implied responsibility for overdose deaths.

A kingpin could also be defined as one whose criminal enterprise has gross receipts of $20 million or more during any 12-month period.

The Senate also passed by voice vote a proposal by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., that would make it more difficult for judges to release inmates due to prison overcrowding.

The Senate measure also would expand the death penalty to nearly 50 offenses, including drive-by shootings and carjackings in which someone is killed.

It also authorizes billions for prevention efforts such as drug treatment for prisoners and after-school activities for young people, and bans the sale or transfer of guns to juveniles.