White House Attack May Aid Backers of Assault Weapon Ban

NEVERMIND terrorists, with their plans and purposes.

The gunshots that an apparently deranged man from Colorado scattered across the front of the White House complex Saturday punctuated how perilous a population armed to the teeth can be to the president.

To the Secret Service, the lesson of the incident - in which no one was injured - was that Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House should be closed off to traffic and the pedestrian public. On Saturday, the shooter, Francisco Martin Duran, stood on a Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalk and sprayed bullets through the bars of the iron fence from his Chinese-made, semi-automatic assault rifle.

But Chief of Staff Leon Panetta noted a ``fine balance'' is necessary between security for the president and public access to the White House.

Tension often arises between President Clinton - who seeks contact with Americans and to move outside the White House complex - and the agents tasked with protecting him. They foil some of Mr. Clinton's more spontaneous wishes, especially. But he also still takes regular morning jogs through the streets of Washington, with security vans and a phalanx of agents in escort.

The original plans for the White House included the park across Pennsylvania Avenue as part of the White House grounds. But Thomas Jefferson thought those plans too grand and regal for the new democracy. The fence around the White House was erected in 1818, but at least as recently as World War II, crowds gathered in the circular White House driveway right at the front portico of the mansion.

Some early speculation about this latest incident centered on whether it would briefly soften the resistance in some regions of the country to the assault-weapons ban in the crime bill passed at the end of the summer.

Yet an assault weapon is hardly the only means of breaching the White House grounds. Last month, a despondent man from Maryland flew into restricted White House airspace in a small stolen airplane and crashed into a tree just below the president's bedroom window.

Assistant director of the Secret Service Richard Griffin said that in the shooting Saturday the president was never in any danger and that he did not regard the shooting as an assassination attempt. ``No way,'' he said.

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