Does Puerto Rico Need More Firepower?
In just eight days, the federal law banning the sale of semi-automatic assault weapons, popularly known as the "federal assault weapons ban," will cease to be in effect unless Congress and President George W. Bush renew it. On March 2nd the majority Republican U.S. Senate voted to extend the ban and continue to prohibit the dangerous arms. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives, however, continues to stall on its version of the bill.
This law, always controversial on the mainland, has recently become a political issue in Puerto Rico.
The law currently in force prohibits domestic gun manufacturers from producing semi-automatic assault weapons and ammunition clips holding more than 10 rounds, except for military or police use. When and if the bill expires on midnight of September 13th, weapons such as the Kalashnikov rifle, the mainstay of the Soviet Bloc infantryman, will once again be able to be manufactured, imported, bought and sold throughout the United States and its territories.
Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry came off the presidential campaign trail to cast a Senate vote favoring a continuation of the ban, but his opponent, incumbent President George W. Bush, has so far remained silent on the issue, even though as a candidate in 2000, he promised to renew the ban. The Houses inertia suggests that its leadership is hearing whispers from the White House reminding Republican members that U.S. gun lobby, spearheaded by the National Rifle Association (NRA), is a major contributor to the Presidents reelection campaign. The NRA opposed the enactment of the bill eight years ago and is now fighting its renewal with equal vigor.
Some prominent Republicans and the majority of the Nations Chiefs of Police are in favor of extending the ban. Ironically, three of the major speakers at Tuesday nights Republican convention -- Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, New York Governor George Pataki, and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani -- all support reauthorization of the ban on assault weapons, but none uttered a peep in its defense from Madison Square Gardens podium. Washington is expecting large groups of police to pressure the President to extend the ban before it expires.
One Republican who reportedly wishes to see an end to the prohibition against the nations manufacture and sale of assault weapons is San Juan, Puerto Ricos Mayor, Jorge Santini, a member of the islands New Progressive Party (NPP), who is in a race to repeat as the citys chief executive against the Popular Democratic Partys (PDP) candidate Edward Bhatia. Recently, Bhatia made public a Santini letter addressed to two mainland Governors, five U.S. senators and to President Bush, expressing his opposition to the ban on the manufacture and sale of assault weapons.
Santinis position has produced howls of protest from the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) and embarrassed silence from luminaries of the NPP. Incumbent Governor Sila Calderón excoriated Santini for his position on the ban. "The effect of the free production and distribution of the semi-automatic weapons will be the indiscriminate introduction of military weapons to Puerto Rico," said Calderón.
The Santini letter comes at a time when violent crime and homicides are at record highs on the island. Both NPP and PDP candidates for Governor and Resident Commissioner are calling for tougher measures to protect residents from guns and criminals. After years of inaction, PDP Governor Calderón moved in July to activate the Puerto Rico National Guard to assist police in containing violent crime. Politically, she could do no less, especially since former NPP Governor Pedro Rosselló had done so in a popular move during his administration and polling showed that Puerto Ricans preferred his "mano duro" (strong hand) policy in dealing with guns and criminals.
With its population of some 3.9 million residents and a murder rate approaching 800 victims per year, Puerto Rico is dubbed "the murder capital of the United States." In her opposition to Santinis advocacy of an end to the ban on assault weapons, Governor Calderón pointed to a surveillance plan by island police that has resulted in the confiscation of illegal guns and a reduction in violence. Santini defended his letter and his stand on the issue, arguing that most of the crimes committed in Puerto Rico are the result of illegal weapons.
The Mayor has also drawn fire from mainland groups advocating for a continuation of the ban. According to the Associated Press (AP), the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence censured Santini for his opposition to renewing the ban, moving the group to endorse his opponent in the race for San Juans mayor in the November election. A spokesman for the Brady group characterized Santinis opposition to the Federal Assault Weapons Ban as irresponsible and shocking. "Mayor Santini is putting at risk the lives of the children of San Juan, their families, and the police."
Mayor Santini, in New York this week attending the Republican Convention as a delegate, is active in the effort to produce Latino mainland votes for President Bush in November, especially in Central Florida. His efforts were hailed on Wednesday by George P. Bush, the Presidents nephew, at a rally in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, which included other Hispanic Republicans.
What seems clear is that Jorge Santini has staked out a position on assault weapons that is popular among those Americans that feel that any restriction on the ownership of guns is an abridgement of the Constitutions guarantee on a citizens "right to bear arms," and others that hold that the government has the obligation to place reasonable restrictions on that right. The argument that allowed the assault weapons ban to become law in the first place boiled down to the question "Do you need a combat weapon to hunt game, do target practice or protect your home?"
The political reality is that the NRA has been single-minded in its opposition to any restriction on guns and its position resonates with many voters, especially in the South and Southwest, and the group has deep pockets to punish candidates that hold different views. On the other hand, advocates of the assault weapons ban have gained considerable grass roots strength and financial resources to respond to the NRAs position.
Peter Hamm, communications director for the Brady Campaign to Stop Gun Violence, said it was "premature" to predict the level of importance the gun issue would play in this year's presidential and national elections. However, if the assault weapons ban is left to expire, Hamm promised that the Brady Campaign would try to make elected officials who allowed it to sunset "feel as much pain" as possible at the voting booths.
Both positions claim that American popular opinion is on their side.
Where do you stand? Should the restriction on the manufacture and sale of assault weapons be renewed or should it be allowed to die?