Taking his campaign for stronger gun control measures to the national stage, Gov. Rendell squared off with a top National Rifle Association official on national television today over the federal ban on assault weapons.
Speaking on CBS's Face the Nation, Rendell said there was no "rational reason" to allow the sale of assault weapons. "They are used for only one reason…to kill and maim people," he said.
Rendell, who has fought unsuccessfully for years in the state Legislature for tougher gun control, revived his efforts following the slayings this month of three Pittsburgh police officers, killed by a man armed with an AK-47 assault rifle.
At least one of the police officers would have been alive, Rendell contended, had the shooter not wielded a semi-automatic weapon, he said.
Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA, on the TV program called the assault weapons ban "a totally phony issue" and called for stronger enforcement of existing laws.
The debate over re-instating the federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 comes as both sides gird for battle, with gun owners stocking up on weapons and ammunition fearing gun bans under President Obama, while a growing number of urban mayors and police chiefs line up behind gun control advocates.
A gauge of the strength of the anti-gun control sentiment outside of urban areas will likely be evident on Tuesday when hundreds of Pennsylvania gun owners are expected to crowd the Capitol Rotunda for the annual right-to-bear-arms rally. In today's Tribune Democrat of Johnstown, publisher Robin L. Quillon wrote that what "Philadelphia politicians and our current governor" really want is "to pick and choose which guns they believe we can or cannot own. After they get the "inch," they will want the "mile" – and trample on our constitutional right to bear arms."
There appears to be little appetite in the White House or on Capitol Hill to move assault weapons ban legislation any time soon. Last month, 65 House Democrats announced that they would oppose reinstating the ban, leading many to believe it lacks majority support.
Senior White House advisor David Axelrod said on today's Face the Nation that the Obama administration had not yet committed to make assault weapons ban a priority given the many other challenges the administration faces. But Axelrod added, "If there is a consensus we'll move on it."
In their 10-minute debate, Rendell and LaPierre got into a heated exchange about the definition of an assault weapon.
LaPierre said there is "no functional difference between an assault weapon and any other gun."
"That is unbelievably untrue," said Rendell. "Assault weapons sold in stores have tremendously higher amount of fire."
Rendell is not giving up on his efforts to pass statewide gun control legislation. At a press conference in Harrisburg last week, he called on lawmakers to let cities enact their own firearms ordinances and require owners to report when guns are lost or stolen. His proposal faces stiff opposition in the Republican-controlled state Senate. Last week, Senate Majority leader Dominic Pileggi said he did not "know any member who has changed their minds on those bills since last session." Similar bills were defeated last year.
On today's TV program, LaPierre contended that reporting requirements were pointless because criminals purchase guns through illegal means and argued that better enforcement of existing laws was needed. Rendell said he agreed with stepped up enforcement, but said criminals regularly enlist legal buyers as "straw purchasers." He said lost and stolen reporting requirements would reduce those transactions because if the gun purchased was linked to a crime, the buyer could no longer make the excuse that his gun was lost or stolen without penalty.