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 yesterday over the federal ban on assault weapons.

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 for years in the state legislature for tougher gun control, revived his efforts after the slayings this month of three Pittsburgh police officers who were killed by a man using an AK-47 assault rifle.

At least one of the officers would still be alive, Rendell contended, if the shooter had not had a semiautomatic weapon.

Countering Rendell, Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA, called the assault-weapons ban "a totally phony issue" and called for stronger enforcement of existing laws.

The debate over reinstating 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 bans under President Obama, and a growing number of urban mayors and police chiefs lining up behind gun-control advocates.

A gauge of the strength of the opposition to gun control outside urban areas will likely be evident tomorrow when hundreds of Pennsylvania gun owners are expected to crowd the Capitol Rotunda for the annual right-to-bear-arms rally.

In yesterday's Tribune Democrat of Johnstown, Pa., 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 they would oppose reinstating the ban, leading many to believe it lacks majority support.

Senior White House adviser David Axelrod said on Face the Nation yesterday that the Obama administration had not yet committed to make an 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 was "no functional difference at all" between an assault weapon and any other gun.

"That is unbelievably untrue," Rendell said. "The assault weapons that are used that are sold in sporting goods stores now because the ban has been lifted, they put out a tremendously high amount of fire."

Rendell is not giving up on his efforts to pass statewide gun-control legislation. At a news conference in Harrisburg last week, he called on lawmakers to let cities enact their own firearms ordinances and require owners to report lost and stolen guns. 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.

LaPierre contended yesterday that reporting requirements were pointless because criminals buy guns through illegal means, and he argued that better enforcement of existing laws was needed.

Rendell said he agreed with stepped-up enforcement, but he said criminals regularly enlist legal buyers as straw purchasers.

He said reporting requirements for lost and stolen guns would reduce those transactions because if the gun purchased was linked to a crime, the buyer could no longer make the excuse without penalty that his gun was lost or stolen.

Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.