In the expanding universe of hot-button political issues, little has been heard of an old favorite - gun control - in this campaign until now. At midnight on Monday night, the 10-year-old ban on certain assault weapons will almost certainly expire as scheduled.
Activists on both sides of the issue have lobbied fiercely: Gun-rights advocates, with the National Rifle Association leading the charge, argue that the ban has done nothing to stop criminals from obtaining weapons and violates the Second Amendment. Gun-control supporters put forth statistics showing a dramatic decline in the criminal use of assault weapons since the ban's enactment in 1994.
President Bush has said that he supports the ban and would sign a bill extending it, but has not pressed Congress to act.
This flareup over the gun issue comes amid a highly charged election campaign, in which Democrats in particular are showing they've learned lessons of the past, analysts say. In 2000, Democratic nominee Al Gore favored licensing gun owners and registering all handguns - and went on to lose five battleground states in which he underperformed among gunowners: West Virginia, New Hampshire, Florida, Arkansas, and Tennessee. Mr. Gore almost lost Pennsylvania, too, another state with a high rate of gun ownership.
This year, Democratic nominee John Kerry - himself a gun owner and hunter - does not back the measures Gore did. And for the first time, the Democratic platform declares support for "Americans' Second Amendment right to own firearms."
"Until this election, the Democrats have handled the gun issue poorly and it has hurt them," says Jim Kessler, policy director of the group Americans for Gun Safety, who notes that 47 percent of voting households have a gun in the home. Now, he adds, "Democrats have reached out and are telling gun owners that they support the rights as well as the responsibilities of gun ownership. I don't think [the issue] will hurt them in this election."
The National Rifle Association, which gun critics say is withholding its endorsement of President Bush until after the assault-weapons ban has safely expired, is pounding hard on Senator Kerry anyway.
The organization calls Kerry "the most antigun presidential nominee in United States history," citing 59 votes involving firearms rights and hunting over 20 years, with only four going the NRA's way.
For now, though, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre sees Kerry having some success in what he calls "an attempt to fog over the issue." He says NRA polling data show that 42 percent of gunowners and hunters in key heartland states like Ohio, Missouri, and Arkansas believe gun restrictions will be lowered if Kerry is elected. "Our job at NRA between now and the election is to blow away the fog," says Mr. LaPierre.
On the Republican side, the 2004 platform says nothing about guns - but it doesn't need to, analysts say. The party is already firmly on record as supporting gun rights, and Bush has an image of strength and resoluteness, especially since 9/11. His past statements supporting an extension of the assault-weapons ban insulate him from being out of step with public opinion.
"Bush is in an enviable position, having it both ways," says Richard Feldman, a former lobbyist for the firearm industry.
This week, a poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center showed that 68 percent of Americans, and 32 percent of NRA members, support extending the ban. And gun-control forces are working hard to maximize that support. In a study based on statistics from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun violence found that crimes traceable to assault weapons declined by 66 percent since the law took effect. Overall, such crimes represent a small percent of all gun crimes (less than 5 percent before the ban, and now 1.6 percent).
Another study released in July, commissioned by the National Institute of Justice, which is part of the Justice Department, concluded that the law's success in reducing criminal use of the banned weapons has been mixed and that it's too soon to make a final assessment.
Still, gun-control advocates maintain that the assault-weapons ban was instrumental in the overall decline in violent crime during the past 10 years, which can also be attributed to other get-tough measures on crime and a strong economy.
"It just doesn't make any sense not to extend the ban," says Peter Hamm of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "The only reason not to is to keep the NRA happy."
The Senate voted in favor of an extension earlier this year, while the House leadership says it has no intention of bringing a vote - despite strong public support for the ban. "We don't do things by polls," says House majority leader Tom DeLay.
The ban prohibited the "manufacture, transfer, and possession" of 19 models of semiautomatic firearms and variations on those, according to characteristics such as flash suppressors, folding rifle stocks and threaded barrels. The law also banned most magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition.
This week, gun-control advocates pushed their position. Joined by police chiefs from around the country, gun victims, and relatives of victims, supporters of the ban made one last plea for its extension. But they their chances are slim to none, and that gunmakers are already poised to start selling the now-banned weapons on Sept. 14. The Consumer Federation of America expects manufacturers to come out with new models of such weapons as AK-47s, TEC-9s, and Uzis.
• Staff writer Gail Russell Chaddock contributed to this story.