Unsoeld Expected To Draw Fire -- Amendment On Assault-Rifle Issue Is Likely To Trigger Liberals' Anger
WASHINGTON - Democratic Rep. Jolene Unsoeld of Olympia, branded by her general-election opponent as one of the most liberal members of Congress, infuriated some of her most liberal supporters earlier this year by her steadfast support for gun owners.
Now, Unsoeld is taking a strong stand in favor of assault weapons and has authored an amendment which gun-control advocates say not only supports the gun lobby but would encourage the production of semi-automatic rifles.
Unsoeld's amendment was part of a crime bill voted down in the House Tuesday after both liberals and conservatives rebelled at some of the provisions of the bill.
But the House leadership expects more action next week on the bill, which expands the number of federal crimes that can result in the death penalty, limits repeated appeals by death-row prisoners and toughens the penalties for fraud associated with the savings-and-loan crisis.
Unsoeld won approval from the House Rules Committee to include a provision that inserts the words ``from imported parts'' after a sentence banning the production of assault weapons. Critics charge the clause would aid domestic manufacturers of such weapons.
Unsoeld said she was only trying to put into law President Bush's position that assault weapons couldn't be imported or assembled by domestic gunsmiths from imported parts.
But Gwen Fitzgerald, spokeswoman for a major gun-control association, said the effect of Unsoeld's amendment would be to encourage domestic production of the automatic-firing weapons. Fitzgerald said Unsoeld's language went much farther than Bush's and that the president had no intention of creating a loophole for domestic production of the weapons.
Assault weapons are military-style rifles that can be made to fire rapid bursts of bullets and increasingly are associated with violent drug crimes. The National Rifle Association has continued to lobby for their legalization, claiming they can be used in sport or hunting.
Fitzgerald said her group, Handgun Control, was surprised after Unsoeld's election in 1988 that the new Democratic congresswoman didn't support any of its legislation.
In particular, the group has pushed for the ``Brady Bill'' - named for former presidential press secretary James Brady, who suffered a severe head wound in the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in 1981. The bill asks for a seven-day waiting period for anyone purchasing a handgun.
Unsoeld has explained that she sees gun ownership as a civil-rights issue guaranteed by the Constitution. She said in a letter to constituents this past summer that she's seen no proof a seven-day waiting period would do any good in fighting crimes.
Unsoeld also has been advised by Democrats such as House Speaker Tom Foley and former Rep. Don Bonker that gun ownership is popular in her Southwest Washington district and that to oppose it would be to pick a political fight she doesn't need in a close election year.
But politics and personal beliefs aside, Unsoeld is now ``carrying the NRA's water'' in Congress, Fitzgerald said. ``We find it really amazing,'' she said.
Unsoeld has received a $1,000 campaign contribution from the NRA in her race against Republican challenger Bob Williams.
Unsoeld today said that the House leadership wanted to pass the crime bill without bogging down in a debate over assault weapons and handguns. In exchange, she said, the leaders will allow a debate over assault weapons in a separate bill.
She said, however, that she does not plan to support the bill that would ban manufacture of assault rifles.
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