WASHINGTON — IN July, a man wielding two TEC-DC9s entered a San Francisco law firm and shot eight people dead. In October, an avowed ``child hater'' in El Cajon, Calif., used a Colt AR-15 to kill a woman and a nine-year-old girl.
Last Friday, a man in Hugo, Okla., bought a Chinese-made version of the AK-47 at a pawn shop, went to a Wal-Mart, and shot two dead and injured three more before killing himself.
These are but three high-profile crimes committed this year with semiautomatic weapons that would be banned under legislation proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California. And as such rampages seem to be proliferating, public support is growing for this amendment to the Omnibus Anti-Crime Bill - a priority when Congress returns from recess next month.
``This legislation will stop the flow of the most deadly weapons on our streets,'' Ms. Feinstein stated Nov. 17 after the amendment passed the Senate 56-to-43. But a close look at it raises questions about whether it can deliver on that promise.
The legislation bans the manufacture, sale, and possession of 19 specific semiautomatics; prohibits the manufacture of other weapons with certain military-style features; and bars production, sale, and possession of any ammunition magazine that can fire 10-plus rounds.
But the amendment is far from a ban on all semiautomatics, which fire a bullet each time the trigger is pulled. In fact, it exempts by name more than 650 hunting weapons, some semiautomatic. Thus, the dilemma: Even if it were possible to eliminate the 1 million military-style ``assault'' weapons in circulation - out of 200 million privately owned firearms - would-be killers would still have a range of semiautomatics to choose from.
One example is the Ruger Mini-14 autoloading rifle, patterned after the M-1 and M-14 combat rifles. Between 1986 and 1990, the Mini-14 was fifth on the list of guns the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) traced most often. It was the BATF list that formed the basis of the Feinstein list of 19 assault weapons, which was taken from earlier legislation written by Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona. Weapons traced most often tend to be on the Feinstein-DeConcini list.
What appears to have saved the Mini-14 from the Feinstein list is the fact that it is a popular hunting gun. When asked why her amendment didn't ban all semiautomatics, she replied: ``We couldn't have gotten it through [Congress].''
The key to getting it through the House will be to isolate assault weapons from those used by hunters, to give National Rifle Association arguments less appeal. The last time the House voted on an assault-weapons ban, in 1991, the legislation was defeated overwhelmingly. Military-looking firearms
NRA lobbyist Joe Phillips argues that the Feinstein ban is based on a superficial criterion, the appearance of a weapon. ``A military-looking firearm is not a military weapon.'' Mr. Phillips takes issue with just about all Feinstein's claims. He says such weapons are not necessarily ``most deadly'' or ``weapons of choice.'' ``Has the Steyr AUG [one of the banned weapons] ever been implicated in a crime? I say: `No.' '' Neither, he says, are these weapons necessarily more accurate or more advanced than weapons not listed.
The question of which weapons criminals ``favor'' is a tricky one. When asked about the ``weapons of choice'' for drug dealers, police department spokesmen in Washington and New York City answer: Whatever they can get their hands on. Of course, says Officer Robert Garisto, in Washington, ``If you laid out a table with a variety of weapons and said, `Choose,' they'd prefer a TEC-9 or a MAC,'' both on the Feinstein list.
By collating national crime data, Florida State University Prof. Gary Kleck estimates that under 0.5 percent of violent crimes are committed with assault weapons. Media attention to killings with such weapons may skew the public's impression of how often they're used, he says.
But police leaders say semiautomatics are showing up more and more, and the Feinstein ban would have an impact. ``Now when a cop's in a shootout, the odds are it's an automatic,'' says Robert Scully, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations.
Supporters of the legislation say with 1 million assault weapons in circulation, it's going to take a long time for them to fall out of use. ``Better to ban them now than to wait until there are 5 million of them out there,'' a Senate Democratic aide says.
The NRA also faces an uphill fight on terminology. As mass killings lead off newscasts, ``assault'' weapons are getting increasing attention - and constituent demands for action could make it more difficult for Congress to vote against a ban on assault weapons. The NRA complains that gun-control advocates have hammered on the term ``assault weapons'' to besmirch semiautomatics. Gun-control advocates say it was the gun buffs who coined the term in ads to appeal to Rambo types. Whatever the case, the terms of public debate are already set.
Some supporters of gun control are concerned that banning certain semiautomatics just because they are popular among drug dealers could lead to public disillusionment with gun control.
Osha Gray Davidson, author of ``Under Fire: The NRA and the Battle for Gun Control,'' compares the Feinstein proposal to a ban on Nissan Pathfinders because drug dealers like to drive them. If Pathfinders were banned, they'd find another vehicle. Ammunition magazines
He sees the most potential for effectiveness in the provision to ban ammunition magazines of more than 10 rounds. In the Long Island, N.Y., commuter shooting this month, the killer was subdued while changing magazines, each consisting of 15 rounds. If he had had lower-capacity magazines, he might have been stopped after fewer shots were fired.
The NRA argues that no correlation between magazine capacities and crimes has been demonstrated, and that the amount of time it takes to change a magazine is so short it makes little difference in an effort to halt a crime.