WASHINGTON - Republican leaders kept their promise to gun enthusiasts by steering a repeal of the assault-weapons ban through the House yesterday, but it was a victory without a conclusive result.
The 239-173 vote to end the 18-month-old ban fell 48 votes shy of the two-thirds majority that would be needed to overcome a promised veto by President Clinton. And the bill isn't likely to get out of the Senate. Still, the legislation will be a source of both controversy and campaign contributions in the fall elections.
As is usual in gun-control debates, emotions ran high on both sides of the aisle yesterday, leading in one instance to a challenge by House Rules Committee Chairman Gerald B. H. Solomon, a New York Republican, to freshman Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, a Rhode Island Democrat, to take their verbal disagreement outside. The 28-year-old Mr. Kennedy ignored the 65-year-old Mr. Solomon's taunt.
Although Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole had earlier promised the gun lobby that he would bring a similar repeal bill to the Senate floor, it appears now that the measure will not see the light of day in that chamber.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the principal sponsor of the original ban, said yesterday that she counted 50 votes in the Senate against any move there to lift it.
Even so, the House vote fulfilled Speaker Newt Gingrich's pledge to the National Rifle Asso- ciation that he would bring the issue up for a vote, in the face of overwhelming public support for keeping the ban in place, according to public opinion polls.
And it assures Mr. Gingrich that the NRA's money and votes will continue flowing to GOP candidates some of whom won the last election on the strength of the gun lobby's support in the election this fall.
On that score, according to Rep. Martin Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat, the NRA donated some $235,000 directly to House freshmen in the last election and $1.85 million to all congressional candidates. Nearly four out of every five dollars went to Republicans.
The NRA spent another $1.5 million in the 1993-1994 election cycle to promote friendly candidates, according to the Committee for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog ,X group. Of that amount, $1.1 million benefited GOP candidates.
The repeal bill would lift the ban on the manufacture and sale of military-style assault weapons, enacted as part of a comprehensive crime bill in 1994. It also would impose stiffer penalties on persons convicted of crimes involving firearms.
Republican Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, a prime sponsor, said the ban has "shifted the balance of power in America against the law-abiding citizen to the criminals," arguing that ordinary folks should be able to arm themselves with rapid-firing weapons to defend against heavily armed miscreants.
He and his allies also insisted that the ban has had no measurable effect on halting violent crime but had inconvenienced law-abiding people who want the semi-automatic weapons for home defense, hunting and target-shooting.
The final House tally showed a number of party crossovers; 56 Democrats joined 183 Republicans to repeal the ban, while 42 Republicans joined 130 Democrats and one Independent to keep it.
Among the Maryland delegation, only Republicans Roscoe G. Bartlett and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. voted to repeal the ban.
But that did not mute the sharply partisan rhetoric that Democrats, in particular, launched against Republican leaders who brought the bill to the floor.
"Newt Gingrich has bent his knee and kissed the ring of the National Rifle Association," fumed Rep. Charles E. Schumer, a zTC New York Democrat and the House's staunchest gun-control advocate.
The most dramatic confrontation came when the usually low-key Mr. Kennedy faced off against Mr. Solomon, an ex-Marine who revels in badgering the opposition.
Mr. Kennedy is the son of Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and the nephew of John and Robert Kennedy, who both were felled by assassins' bullets.
His face flushed and voice quaking with emotion, Mr. Kennedy said, "Families like mine all across this country know all too well the damage weapons can do, Shame on you, My God, all I have to say to you is, play with the devil, die with the devil, You'll never know what it's like because you don't have someone in your family killed. It's not [just] the person that's killed; it's the whole family that's affected."
Mr. Solomon said his family is as precious to him and retorted: "My wife lives alone five days a week in a rural area of upstate New York She has a right to defend herself when I'm not there, son, and don't you ever forget it."
Then, he flexed his arms and taunted Mr. Kennedy: "Let's go outside together!"
Pub Date: 3/23/96