WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Rep. Ron Klink, an opponent of gun control, went to his Western Pennsylvania district recently to play devil's advocate: Speaking to gun clubs and civic groups, he argued the case for the House bill to ban 19 kinds of assault weapons.
The freshman Democrat said he was hooted down with a vengeance. That response helps explains why today's scheduled House vote on the weapons ban is still a cliffhanger -- despite a late rush of lobbying by the Clinton administration.
"You have to understand," Mr. Klink said. "We close our schools and businesses at the start of hunting season. This is a rural community, where people still use rifles to put meat on their table. The movie 'The Deer Hunter' was made here. We had 200 calls against the ban, and maybe a half-dozen in favor. Now I'm back where I started."
If the House is to pass the assault weapon ban, supporters must overcome such objections in rural districts where gun enthusiasts are a politically potent force.
Even so, President Clinton and his allies have on their side both momentum and the weight of public opinion in seeking to ban the manufacture, sale or possession of certain military-style weapons that are designed to spray bullets into advancing ranks of soldiers.
"It's starting to break our way as more attention is focused on the issue," said Rep. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat who is leading the forces in support of the ban. He said the proponents' vote total was "five down and closing."
But securing the last five votes is difficult because limiting access to any firearms is regarded in Mr. Klink's community and many othersas a cultural affront.
"We understand guns," said Rep. Bart Stupak, a freshman Democrat who represents the wild and remote Upper Peninsula of Michigan. "Everyone there has a '30-aught-6' [rifle] for hunting, including me. Next, they could try to ban them -- that's the fear. I haven't committed myself, but I'm leaning no."
More than three-quarters of Americans support the ban, according to a CNN/USA Today poll taken in December, after the Senate voted to include an assault-weapon ban in its version of the crime bill.
Although a similar proposal was defeated in the House three years ago by a margin of 247 to 177, the head count on the assault-weapon ban was too close to call yesterday, with a pool of 30 or so members undecided.
Graphic reports about the use of assault weapons -- such as the AK-47, Tech 9 and Uzi -- in horrific killings have yielded some influential converts to the cause.
"I have always felt that gun-control laws would hamper legitimate sportsmen far more than criminals," said Rep. Michael A. Andrews, a Houston Democrat who is giving up his House seat after making an unsuccessful bid this year for the Senate.
"At the same time . . . I cannot help but be appalled at the risingnumber of random violent crimes that are occurring on our streets."
A major breakthrough for supporters of the ban occurred last week, when Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, a conservative who is a leading Republican on crime issues, reversed his long-standing opposition and cast the only Republican vote in the Judiciary Committee for the ban.
His change of heart came after Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who pushed the ban proposal through the Senate, sent him a list of killings in the Chicago area that involved assault weapons. Most of the killings involved young people.
"I believe in the right to own weapons, protect your home or property or hunt," Mr. Hyde told reporters. "But these are dangerous weapons. When youth gangs start using them to kill each other, as these weapons proliferate beyond their present numbers, they could put the whole community in great danger."
Opponents of the ban, such as House minority whip Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, acknowledge that the tide is running against them.
In fact, Tony Blankley, a spokesman for Mr. Gingrich, suggested that President Clinton has jumped into the fight with enthusiasm because he sees it as a sure winner for him.
"He's getting in on the popular side of the issue, so even if it loses, he gets some points for trying," Mr. Blankley said of Mr. Clinton. "And if he wins, it gives him a victory at a time when he really needs one."
Because of the intense and well-organized opposition of gun-control opponents, led by the National Rifle Association, many legislators find it hard to believe that a majority of their constituents favor the ban.
"The opponents tend to be much more vocal, and they will vote on that one issue," said Jeff Muchnick, of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, which is lobbying in favor of the ban. "That's what makes them so politically powerful."
Chief among the lawmakers who don't want to cross this vocal minority is House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, a Democrat from a hunter-haven district in Washington state who is taking no public stand on the issue.
"I'm trying to be fair and impartial," said Mr. Foley, who has long opposed gun-control efforts. He told reporters that he would vote only if needed to break a tie, but he would not say how he would vote.
Administration lobbying has been intense but uneven, focused more on public media events than on private arm-twisting.
Mr. Clinton gave a pep talk Monday to the informal whip organization led by Mr. Schumer that was charged with drumming up votes.
The White House said Mr. Clinton also phoned wavering House members yesterday.
But the president does not appear to be investing as much energy and time as he did in previous close legislative battles, such as over the budget and the North American Free Trade Agreement.