WHEN President Clinton demanded a ban on assault weapons this week, he cited the case of Wisconsin police Capt. James Lutz, gunned down by an M1-A1 rifle after a bank robbery.
``When the House of Representatives votes [on a ban Thursday], they shouldn't forget the tragedy [of Captain Lutz],'' Mr. Clinton told a White House audience.
There is just one problem: The M1-A1, a semi-automatic rifle, is not prohibited by the proposed law supported by the president.
Contradictions like that prompted actor Charlton Heston, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association, to accuse proponents this week of ``deception'' and ``deliberate misstatement of reality.''
Mr. Heston told a Capitol Hill press conference that none of the leading advocates of a ban - ``not the White House, not the president, not Sen. [Dianne] Feinstein, are speaking the truth.''
Rep. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, the foremost House champion of the ban, counters that the NRA and its supporters are waging a campaign based on ``scaring people'' about ``what might come down the road'' - such as a ban on all privately owned guns.
With emotions high, today's scheduled House vote is expected to be close. Earlier, the Senate, by a margin of 56-to-43, accepted the so-called Feinstein amendment to prohibit the sale of 19 ``assault weapons.''
The argument between the two sides will hardly be settled by the House decision, however. The effort to ban weapons in the hands of American citizens is gaining momentum, and seems unlikely to end here.
Clinton, Schumer, Feinstein & Co. say that America has turned into an urban battlefield where teenagers roam the streets with military-type weapons and murder innocent citizens.
Schumer admits that the weapons he would ban are responsible for less than 1 percent of the nation's killings. But Police Chief David Steingraber of Menomonee Falls, Wis., a friend of the late Captain Lutz, argues:
``I'm not impressed by statistics which say [assault] weapons like this aren't [widely] used in crime. If they are not, they will be.''
On the other side, Heston & Co. say the freedom to own a weapon for purposes of self-defense, hunting, or recreation is enshrined in the US Constitution's Second Amendment. It is a basic civil right that the White House seems ready to put aside, they say.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R) of California, who opposes the ban, cites a study by Gary Kleck (``Point Blank: Guns and Violence in America'') to support his decision. The study concludes that on average, approximately 2,000 persons per day in America use guns for defensive purposes, mostly in their homes or businesses.
Representative Hunter says that when Clinton focuses on weapons instead of criminals, he overlooks the real cause of crime.
``The real assault weapons'' are the many ``deadly criminals'' who are given early release from prisons, Hunter says. He notes that on average, a murder convict in the US serves a sentence of less than 5-1/2 years.
Statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation help put this debate into better perspective.
In 1992, the most recent year for which statistics are available, there were 15,377 killings with firearms nationwide, the FBI reports. Of those, 12,489 were with handguns, 698 with rifles, 1,104 with shotguns, and 42 with other types of guns, such as flare pistols. There were also 1,044 deaths by guns not described by local police.
The FBI does not break out ``assault weapons'' as a separate type because no uniform description of such a weapon exists. Using estimates from both sides, however, the number of murders by these weapons ranges from 200 to 300 a year.
By contrast, other weapons take a far higher toll - knives, 3,265 murders; fists, feet, and other personal weapons, 1,121 killings; blunt objects like clubs, 1,029.
The NRA says such figures show that Feinstein and others are using emotion to blow the issue out of proportion. They accuse the senator and some of her colleagues of using the weapons issue as a reelection ploy.
California Democrat Feinstein responds that any number of killings by such weapons is too many, and that today ``no place is safe from assault weapons.''
She says: ``Every major national law enforcement organization in the country supports a ban on semi-automatic assault weapons.'' Among them are the Fraternal Order of Police and the National Sheriffs' Association.
One member who has found Feinstein's arguments persuasive is Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, a prominent GOP conservative. An aide says the congressman was particularly impressed with a list of assault weapon incidents in Illinois. Among the items: the murder, using an AK-47, of a 16-year-old basketball star in Chicago by a 17-year-old who mistook him for a rival gang member.
Yet opponents are unimpressed. Tougher prison sentences against criminals, not tougher gun laws against law-abiding citizens, are the answer, they say. And they bristle at the proponents' tactics.
Example: On Monday, Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen held up a ``Streetsweeper'' rapid-fire shotgun, citing it as an example of the kind of weapon that must be gotten off the streets.
Yet officials later conceded that Streetsweepers were already outlawed as a ``destructive device'' under the National Firearms Act of 1968.