WASHINGTON -- Taking direct aim -- again -- at the National Rifle Association, President Clinton yesterday endorsed a change in federal law designed to make it impossible to legally purchase "cop-killer" bullets capable of piercing protective vests.
Mr. Clinton made the pitch in a campaign-style speech in Chicago at the 15th District police headquarters. His bill would ban the manufacture of handgun ammunition that can penetrate the protective vests worn by law enforcement officers.
Under current federal law, armor-piercing bullets are defined by their ingredients. Instead, Mr. Clinton -- anticipating advances in technology -- wants to outlaw any bullet that can pierce a protective vest.
"The law is written, in my opinion, in the wrong way," he told cheering Chicago police officers. "The test should be simple and straightforward. If a bullet can rip through a bullet-proof vest, like a knife through hot butter, then it ought to be history."
The president acknowledged that his effort will run into determined opposition from the gun lobby, but he seemed to relish the fight, at one point poking fun at the objections typically raised by gun enthusiasts to such bans.
"I'm almost 50 years old -- I have never seen a deer, a duck or a wild turkey wearing a Kevlar vest in my life," Mr. Clinton said to laughter and applause. "Nobody is interfering with your right to hunt or to enter into any kind of sporting contest."
In response, NRA officials questioned the need for the legislation -- citing the existing law -- and dismissed Mr. Clinton's police station event as little more than a campaign stunt.
"The president's entire visit to Chicago is riddled with ironies," said NRA spokesman Tom Wyld. "First off, he made these statements in a city in which handguns are already banned altogether, which we believe underscores the ineffectiveness of gun control in fighting crime."
Mr. Wyld, noting that the federal law banning armor-piercing bullets has been on the books for eight years, said that a slain Chicago police officer singled out by the president was shot while wearing a Kevlar vest -- but that the bullets did not pierce the vest.
This assertion was backed by Chicago police Detective Patrick Camden, who confirmed in an interview that Officer Daniel Doffyn was shot in the head and the chest but that the bullet that penetrated his torso came up the sleeve or over the top of the vest.
"The president is calling on Congress to change the law knowing full well that the 1986 ban has worked flawlessly," Mr. Wyld said. "Since 1986, no police officer has been killed anywhere in the United States with any projectile fired from a handgun that went through the material of a soft-body vest."
Treasury Department officials don't dispute that, but supporters the stronger ban, which has been fought over on Capitol Hill all year, say it's only a matter of time until a fatality of the sort Mr. Clinton spoke of occurs.
Currently, the law imposes limits on ammunition based on the materials used in its manufacture. But because scientists are constantly discovering new materials with which to coat bullets, this approach has been questioned by Rep. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat.
Deputy Treasury Secretary Ronald K. Noble said White House interest was driven by the recent controversy over the Black Rhino, whose manufacturer promoted it as a vest-piercing bullet but withdrew it after a public outcry.
"In last year's crime bill we had to amend the 1986 law because a Swedish bullet wasn't covered by it," said Schumer spokesman Josh Isay.
For that reason, Mr. Schumer proposed earlier this year closing the loopholes in the law by making the performance capabilities of the bullet the determining factor in whether it can be sold. This is the approach Mr. Clinton embraced yesterday.
Two weeks ago, Mr. Schumer ushered just such a ban through the House Judiciary Committee on a 16-14 vote with three votes in support coming from Republicans. Days later, under pressure from the NRA and conservatives in their own party, two of those Republicans -- former police officer Fred Heineman of North Carolina and Michael Patrick Flanagan of Chicago -- switched their votes.
Yesterday's move by Mr. Clinton was intended to squeeze Mr. Flanagan, a freshman Republican in a previously Democratic seat, said a House Judiciary Committee staff member. "As far as we're concerned, that's the kind of hardball stuff the White House should do more of," added the Democratic staffer.
The larger context is Mr. Clinton's legislative battle with the NRA, which Mr. Clinton has been winning -- and which his advisers also believe is an obvious winner for the president politically.
Last year, the president was able to overcome fierce NRA opposition in persuading Congress to pass his proposed ban on several types of assault-style weapons and to act on a long-stalled proposal for a five-day waiting period for handguns.
The president also directly challenged the NRA to tone down its anti-government rhetoric in the wake of the April 19 Oklahoma City bombing. The organization did so; moreover, it apologized for some of its earlier statements critical of federal law enforcement agencies.
"We say, 'Good for Bill Clinton,' " said Vincent DeMarco, former head of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, now a lobbyist for HandgunControl Inc., a national anti-gun lobby. "We favor any kind of ban on cop-killer bullets that help the police do their job, and we think the NRA is showing its true stripes again."
Mr. Wyld replied that the president is basing his positions on a myth -- namely, that crime can be curbed by gun control laws. Regardless, many Democrats are pleased to see Mr. Clinton fighting the NRA -- and on the side of the police, no less -- and assert that his high profile on this issue is helping him.
"Believe me, the White House has polls that show this is a 70-30 issue for him," said Democratic consultant Dane Strother. "No way in the world they'd attack the NRA if they didn't know it was going to help them."