Back Burner for an Assault-Weapons Ban

On the morning of April 4, Richard Poplawski had a quarrel with his mother. It was over a dog urinating on a carpet. Mom called the police to have her 22-year-old son evicted from her house, a brick ranch with a dirty aluminum awning in the Stanton Heights neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Two officers responded to the call, figuring it was a typical domestic dispute. Margaret Poplawski greeted them by saying, "Come and take his ass." But the younger Poplawski, who had been laid off from his job in a glass factory recently, had other plans. He went to a private arms cache in the house, retrieved his guns and strapped on a Kevlar bulletproof vest.

Poplawski shot officer Paul J. Sciullo II, 37, inside the house and hit 29-year-old Stephen Mayhle on the stoop. Both men fell dead. Poplawski calmly stood in the doorway and fired two or three more bullets into Mayhle's body, according to a police affidavit from a witness. Then he retreated into the house and fired hundreds of rounds, using an AK-47 assault rifle and other weapons to fend off a police SWAT team for four hours. He killed one other cop, 41-year-old Eric Kelly, and wounded yet another.

It was the deadliest day in the history of the Steel City's police department. When police finally apprehended and questioned Poplawski, he was without remorse. "He said he wishes he could have killed more Pittsburgh police officers," says a cop who was on the scene but asked not to be identified talking about an ongoing case. (Poplawski's lawyer did not respond to multiple requests for comment last week.)

There was a time when a creep like Poplawski would have become a potent symbol in the debate over gun control. He wasn't your run-of-the-mill malcontent. A white supremacist, he frequented the chat rooms of racist Web sites, where he posted screeds about a "Zionist occupation" bringing the country to economic ruin. But Keith Savage, manager of the Braverman Arms Co., where Poplawski got many of his guns (but not the AK-47, Savage claims), says nothing seemed amiss when he filled out Form 4473—the standard questionnaire for federally required background checks. The gun-shop staff had no way of knowing, for instance, about Poplawski's January 2005 discharge from the Marines for what Lt. Josh Diddams, a U.S. Marine Corps spokesman, tells NEWSWEEK was a "psychological disorder" (he had assaulted his drill sergeant during basic training, says Poplawski's mother). They probably also didn't know that Poplawski's former girlfriend had gotten a restraining order against him, later in 2005, after he grabbed her by the hair and threatened to kill her.

In the past, national political leaders might have raised troubling questions about how such an unstable character could obtain easy access to high-powered weapons. They might have been even more motivated given that Poplawski's cop-killing spree was part of a near epidemic of mass homicides that have left 58 people dead over the past month. Or given that Mexico's insanely violent drug cartels are arming themselves with high-powered assault weapons purchased at U.S. gun stores and later smuggled south of the border. Yet many past champions of stricter gun-control measures are silent. These include top Obama White House officials who have squelched any talk within the administration about pushing further gun-control measures."It's weird," says Peter Hamm, the communications director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "When you see people like [Attorney General] Eric Holder or Hillary Clinton or [White House chief of staff] Rahm Emanuel become muted on this issue, you feel like you want to call up a friend and say, 'What's up?' "

Running for president in last year's Democratic primaries, Barack Obama promised to restore a federal ban on certain semiautomatic assault guns—a position that's still on the White House Web site. The ban was originally passed by the Democratic-controlled Congress in 1994 and lapsed five years ago. In recent years the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has also lifted virtually all restrictions on imports of foreign-made assault weapons, permitting a flood of cheap Romanian, Bulgarian and other Eastern European AK-47s to enter the country, according to gun-control groups. "There's been an absolute deluge of these weapons," says Kristen Rand of the Violence Policy Center.

But Obama and top White House aides have all but abandoned the issue. Emanuel helped orchestrate passage of the original assault-weapons ban when he worked in the Clinton White House. Now he and other White House strategists have decided they can't afford to tangle with the National Rifle Association at a time when they're pushing other priorities, like economic renewal and health-care reform, say congressional officials who have raised the matter. (According to his office, Emanuel couldn't be reached for comment because he was observing the Passover holiday.) A White House official, who asked not to be identified discussing internal strategy, says, "There isn't support in Congress for such a ban at this time." Ben LaBolt, a White House spokesman, says, "The president supports the Second Amendment, respects the tradition of gun ownership in this country, and he believes we can take common-sense steps to keep our streets safe," pointing to $2 billion in new funding for state and local law enforcement in the stimulus package.

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat, is one of those who are impatient with their party's silence. She has reason to be: a gunman firing randomly on a Long Island commuter train on Dec. 7, 1993, killed her husband, Dennis, and severely injured her son, Kevin. But when she pressed Obama transition officials to take up the issue, they were clear about their priorities: "They told me that's not for now, that's for later."

The word didn't get through to everyone in the administration, resulting in mixed messages—and blowback from the NRA. In February, Holder called for restoring the federal ban on assault guns to help curb the flow of weapons to the Mexican cartels. As soon as he made the call, however, the NRA launched a fierce lobbying campaign—and 65 House Democrats signed a letter vowing to resist any gun-control measures. In the Senate, Montana Democrats Max Baucus and Jon Tester sent their own warning. "Senators to Attorney General Holder: Stay Away From Our Guns," read the press release.

Within days, White House aides instructed Justice officials to stop talking about the assault-weapons issue, according to congressional and administration officials who asked not to be identified because of political sensitivities. (A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.) Last week, in an interview with Katie Couric, Holder skirted questions about reinstating the assault-weapons ban and also about a gaping loophole that permits people to purchase arms at gun shows without background checks. "I understand the Second Amendment. I respect the Second Amendment," said Holder, after denying that he had been instructed to "back off" the gun-control measures.

The new Democratic squishiness on guns is all about politics. Democratic leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer are determined to protect the seats of "blue dogs" from rural districts who are essential to preserving the party's majority in the House. "The Democratic Party understands this is a losing issue … It's a dead loser," says Democratic Rep. Dan Boren, of Muskogee, Okla. "Its one of the reasons they lost the Congress in 1994 and Al Gore was not elected president in 2000."

Boren is a good example of the kind of young blue dog who now holds sway on this issue. A lifelong hunter who bagged his first deer at the age of 9—and has a stockpile of 15 guns at home—Boren is an NRA member who was elected last year to the lobby's board of directors. "I can tell you, that assault-weapons ban is just an excuse to take away a sportsman's shotguns," he says. Boren also understands the political dynamics of his district, in which Obama got only 36 percent of the vote (while Boren cruised to reelection with 70 percent). "For a Democrat to run in eastern Oklahoma, we can't support gun control. We shouldn't go back and refight old battles. This is an old debate."

The NRA loves blue dogs like Boren. The organization feels that it's stronger in Congress than it has been in at least two decades. Emboldened by a Supreme Court decision last year that affirmed Second Amendment rights, the lobby has pushed a series of congressional measures that are diluting gun restrictions. With virtually no public notice, the Senate recently passed an amendment to the budget bill that would reverse a post-9/11 policy and allow passengers to bring guns in their checked bags on Amtrak trains. (In passing the amendment by an overwhelming margin, the Senate ignored pleas by Amtrak officials that the measure could endanger safety.) More troublesome for Democratic leaders, an amendment eliminating most D.C. gun laws has been added to a historic bill giving the city's residents voting representation in Congress.

Gun-rights advocates argue that nuts like Richard Poplawski will always be able to kill people. He apparently bought his guns legally. His military discharge didn't count against him for gun purchases, because only a dishonorable discharge "adjudged" in a court-martial is a disqualifier for gun buyers. The restraining order against him had expired in 2006, so that didn't hurt him either. But gun enthusiasts argue that even if Poplawski had been banned from getting assault weapons, he would have found a way. One of the reasons he was stocking up on guns, says his mother, is because he feared Obama would take them away. "If you make guns illegal, only the people who don't follow the law will have them," says the Pittsburgh police officer who was at the scene of Poplawski's standoff.

Joanne Dubaniewicz, who watched much of Poplawski's massacre from her house across the street, thinks that's crazy. She is struggling with her memories of a wounded officer who was lying in the road. "The thing that is most upsetting is Officer Kelly started moving around," she says. "We watched him dying." Dubaniewicz is a trained nurse; she had a tourniquet and some bandages to help try to save Kelly, but she and her boyfriend—a combat war vet—were too scared to go outside. "Something is very, very wrong with the system," she says. That might sound like a sensible refrain. But you'll struggle to hear a leading Democrat repeat it these days.