Political fallout from the Oklahoma City tragedy has dimmed Republican prospects for repeal of the 1994 Crime Bill ban on assault style weapons -- and a good thing too. While there is obviously no connection between a truck bomb capable of destroying a skyscraper and a rapid-fire rifle, the American public is upset as never before by the general menace of terrorism. GOP leaders in the House and Senate have consequently delayed plans to push for repeal votes in the near future.
Whether the mood will change later in the session is conjectural. The National Rifle Association, ever the most potent force against gun control, has plenty of individual legislators in its richly lined pocket. It is always capable of calling in the chits for the big money it poured into scores of congressional campaigns, this despite public sentiment against automatic weapons that have figured in any number of spectacular crimes.
The NRA, however, finds itself very much on the defensive for its vitriolic rhetoric against Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents -- the chief hate objects of Oklahoma bomb suspect Timothy McVeigh because of the Waco incident two years ago. In newspaper ads and fund-rising letters, the NRA has called the BATF a "rogue agency" that has engaged in "storm trooper tactics." The assault weapon ban, it warns, gives "jackbooted government thugs more power. . . to seize our guns, break in our doors and even injure or kill us."
Is it any wonder that such language, plus the venom heard from extremist talk radio, can incite deranged or unbalanced individuals to murderous action? Wayne LaPierre, NRA executive vice president, claims he knows of no such case. But when asked if the NRA should reconsider its words, he replied: "This whole issue would be better if people would lower the rhetoric -- the anti-gun groups, the media, the NRA from time to time." [Italics ours.] That comment represents progress even if NRA propaganda is in a class by itself.
By putting off the assault weapons issue to take up proposals to strengthen the government's capabilities against domestic terrorism, the Republican leadership is making virtue out of necessity.
Speaker Newt Gingrich early this year excluded the ban repeal from the crime bills passed by the House as part of the GOP "Contract with America." He correctly perceived it put his party at odds with most of the nation's law enforcement chiefs and a crime-fearing public. Now the question is whether he will go back on the offensive later in the year. We hope he does not.
When Congress passed the Clinton crime bill last year, the ban on a limited number of military-style guns seemed to us a reasonable attempt to limit traffic in exceedingly dangerous weapons. Plenty of rapid-fire rifles remain on the market for legitimate hobbyists and sportsmen. Such was our position before Oklahoma City; it continues to be so today. This is one divisive issue neither the GOP nor the nation needs to have resurrected.