WASHINGTON -- Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry said yesterday that President Bush was directly responsible for terrorists and murderers who try to buy AK-47s and other assault weapons at US gun shows and stores or who move into unsuspecting neighborhoods.
Kerry, who has accused Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney of using the threat of terrorism to scare Americans into reelecting them, used some of his darkest language to date as he came to a working-class Washington neighborhood to mark the end of the decade-old ban on assault weapons. Surrounded by police officers and victims of gun violence, Kerry accused Bush of caving into the gun lobby and not asking his congressional allies to extend the ban, which the Republican endorsed during the 2000 campaign.
''George Bush gave [police officers] his word that when it came time, he was going to extend the ban," Kerry said at the Thurgood Marshall community center in Washington. ''But when it came time to do it, when it became time to make a phone call, when it became time to fight, when it became time to lead, when it became time to stand up and ask America to do what was right, George Bush's powerful friends in the gun lobby asked him to look the other way, and he couldn't resist, and he said, 'Sure.'
''For the first time in 10 years, when a killer walks into a gun shop, when a terrorist goes to a gun show somewhere in America, when they want to purchase an AK-47 or some other military assault weapon, they're going to hear one word: 'Sure,' " he continued. ''Today, George Bush chose to make the job of terrorists easier and make the job of America's police officers harder, and that's just plain wrong."
Kerry called for extending the weapons ban and for fully funding the federal Cops program -- which has been cut under the Bush administration -- to hire 10 percent more police officers and 5,000 additional local prosecutors in 10 years.
''You put a cop on the street, on the street corner, and that cop's walking the beat, and that cop gets to know the people who live in that neighborhood, guess what: You notice if some terrorist has moved into an apartment," Kerry said.
The assault weapons ban outlawed the sale of 19 kinds of semiautomatic weapons, some of which are similar to military weapons, as well as magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition.
Some Republican leaders in Congress and gun manufacturers have pointed to studies that the ban did little to keep such weapons out of the hands of criminals and instead denied Americans an opportunity to select weapons of their choosing at gun stores and shows.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan was asked repeatedly by reporters yesterday why Bush did not strongarm congressional leaders to extend the ban if he supported it. McClellan reiterated Bush's support for an extension and said Capitol Hill sets the legislative calendar -- even though the president's agenda usually drives much of that process.
The Bush campaign issued a statement yesterday highlighting significant reductions in crime during his presidency, saying that the ''violent crime victimization rate" is at a 30-year low. ''During President Bush's first three years in office, the violent crime rate dropped 21 percent from the last two years of the previous administration," the statement said.
Kerry spent yesterday afternoon at his Georgetown home preparing for the debates this fall against Bush. The Democrat has put together a team of senior advisers, including Robert Shrum and Joe Lockhart, and leading party strategists -- such as Clinton lawyer Greg Craig, who is playing the role of Bush in rehearsal sessions -- to help him with the face-to-face exchanges that may have a decisive effect on voter opinion about the Massachusetts senator.
According to advisers, Kerry views the president as a formidable debating opponent. ''President Bush has won every debate of his life because he speaks plainly, almost in a folksy way, and usually comes across as steady and comfortable with himself," said a senior Kerry adviser who is involved in the debate preparations and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
''Senator Kerry is exceptionally intelligent and a master of detail, and the goal is conveying that command of the issues while appealing to people on a personal level," the adviser said.
Kerry plans to spend several hours a week on debate work, such as briefing books and memos prepared by aides that include shorter responses with plainer language. At recent town hall meetings with voters, Kerry has been trying to tighten up his opening remarks to between 15 and 20 minutes -- about half as long as he took at some of these forums as recently as last month.
The nonpartisan commission on debates has proposed three face-offs between Bush and Kerry, with the first scheduled for Sept. 30 in Miami, and a single encounter between Vice President Dick Cheney and Kerry's running mate, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina. The Bush campaign has signaled that it would prefer two debates between the presidential contenders.
Patrick Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.