WASHINGTON - As the clock counts down on the decadeold ban on selling and buying assault-style weapons, phones have begun ringing off the hook at ArmaLite. Customers want to know when the newly outfitted AR-15 rifle will be ready.
‘‘People are excited. They’ve been waiting for this for a long time, and we’ve been preparing,’’ said Jodi DePorter, a spokeswoman for the Geneseo, Ill.-based gun maker.
Unless Republican congressional leaders have a sudden change of heart, the assault weapons ban — a centerpiece of the 1994 Crime Bill — will expire Monday.
The federal law applied to 19 semiautomatic weapons, which fire one round and automatically load each time the trigger is pulled.
Automatic weapons, which remain illegal, are designed for military use and shoot without stopping.
ArmaLite plans to ship newly outfitted assault rifles just hours later to customers who were so eager to get the .308 and .223 caliber semiautomatic rifles that they’ve preordered them.
Gun manufacturers are gearing up for a wave of business once the ban sunsets.
They’re offering promotional coupons online for extras such as free flash suppressors and boxes of high-capacity 15-round magazines.
Many East Valley gun shops were more hesitant to pre-order shipments, but phone calls from gun manufacturers and customers have begun as the deadline comes closer.
"I think most people can’t wait. A lot of guys keep calling," said Peter Carter, a salesman at Arizona Sportsman, 1232 E. Southern Ave. in Mesa. "Lots of people are excited to have an AK-47 with a 120-round drum to shoot at things in the desert for no particular reason."
Joseph Vince, the former chief of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Crime Gun Analysis Branch, predicted that the end of the ban ‘‘will cause a frenzied buying spurt.’’
‘‘People will buy them in high quantities just because they will fear that this ban may go into effect yet again,’’ Vince said.
A Consumer Federation of America report says prices for the assault weapons would drop as the supply surges. While there’ve been knockoffs of popular banned semiautomatic weapons such as AK-47s, Uzis and TEC-9s, some gun buyers want the real thing.
The consumer group predicted a wave of ‘‘gun buyer nostalgia’’ for new models of the originals. And highcapacity magazines will begin rolling off the production lines again, dramatically increasing the firepower on the streets, the report found.
Law enforcement — which credits the ban with helping drive down the crime rate to record-low levels in the last decade — says they’ll once again be outgunned by criminals.
Several dozen police chiefs from around the country converged on Washington recently to lobby members of Congress to reauthorize the ban. They also sought a meeting with President Bush — who has said he would sign a bill if it landed on his desk — but were rebuffed, said Joe Polisar, the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Police and other supporters of the ban accused Bush of not doing anything to temper Republican opposition to the ban in the House of Representatives.
‘‘We cannot afford a repeat of the carnage on our streets in the ’70s and ’80s,’’ Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Bratton said. ‘‘We need sanity in our gun laws.’’
To purchase an assault weapon, customers must undergo a criminal background check. If they pass, they can walk out with a gun. Seven states — California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York — have their own assault-weapon bans that will remain in place.
The 1994 ban, signed by President Bill Clinton, outlawed the manufacture and importation of 19 types of military-style semiautomatic assault weapons and others with similar features. The law imposed a ban on certain semiautomatic weapons, those that fire one bullet with each squeeze of the trigger but which sponsors of the ban said also allowed for rapid firing. Some pistols as well as rifles were covered by the ban.
The federal ban was a major achievement of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who pushed for it after a series of shootings, including a 1993 rampage in a San Francisco office building that left eight people dead and six wounded. The attacker was armed with a .45-caliber Colt semiautomatic pistol and two 9-millimeter TEC-9 Luger semiautomatics. The sale of newly manufactured versions of these weapons was banned by the 1994 law, although those made before Sept. 13, 1994, could still be bought and sold.
Rep. Jack Brooks, D-Texas, who at the time was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and waged an unsuccessful campaign to kill the weapons ban, said then: ‘‘The people who hate guns are in the majority right now.’’
They apparently are not any more. The ban fell to a relentless assault by the National Rifle Association and to fears among Democrats that gun-control advocacy was draining support from rural voters. Although polls indicate that Americans support the assault-weapons ban, many Democrats believe that Al Gore’s championing of gun control cost him the presidency in the tight 2000 race against George W. Bush.
Feinstein last week blamed ‘‘the powerful, selfish NRA and its brutal lobbying tactics’’ for making the assault weapons ban ‘‘one more victim.’’ But she vowed: ‘‘I do not intend to give up. Next year . . . we will come back and back and back.’’
The NRA maintains the ban was nothing more than a cosmetic fix and that there’s no evidence proving it worked.
Dueling studies on the ban’s effectiveness have given both sides evidence to cherry pick and make their case.
Supporters of the ban — such as the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence — cite ATF ‘‘crime gun’’ data, which show that the number of outlawed weapons as a percentage of all guns the ATF has traced to crimes has fallen — from 4.82 percent before the ban to 1.61 percent after it was imposed.
The NRA counters with a study by the Urban Institute, which found that assault weapons and high-capacity magazines ‘‘were never involved in more than a modest fraction of all gun murders.’’
A federally funded followup study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania said that while the use of assault weapons in crimes has declined since the ban, the use of large-capacity magazines has been on the rise.
‘‘Should it be renewed, the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement,’’ said the study.
Even many of its most ardent supporters concede that the assault weapons ban is far from an outright prohibition.
The legislation was riddled with loopholes that allowed manufacturers to rename their weapons and make minor modifications on copycat models that could then be sold legally. Weapons already out there were allowed to remain in circulation.
So were magazines over the 10-round limit that the ban imposed. Just before the ban took effect, manufacturers increased production to ensure they had legal stocks in reserve. But prices on the preban items have risen, putting them out of reach for some people.
For supporters, making the guns even a bit to harder to obtain is worth it.
‘‘Why in the world would you want to return these offensive weapons to our streets and neighborhoods?’’ asked Tom Mauser, who lost his son, Daniel, in the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado.
The 1994 law allowed an estimated 1.5 million assault weapons owned before the ban took effect to remain in private hands and permitted the sale of millions of largecapacity ammunition magazines made before the ban took effect. The importation of Uzis and AK-47s will remain illegal under an executive order issued by President George H.W. Bush in 1989.
An effort to extend the assault weapons ban won the approval of a majority of senators earlier this year. The assault weapons ban was attached to an NRA-backed measure to shield gun makers and sellers from gun violence lawsuits.
The NRA scuttled its bill once renewal of the assault weapons ban was attached.
Some experts say the loopholes in the ban were so great that small modifications in banned weapons made them legal.
‘‘Nothing of substance will change in the gun industry after the sunset,’’ said Kristen Rand, legislative director for the Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit organization that advocates gun control. ‘‘The difference between the postban versions of assault weapons such as the AR-15 and their banned counterparts is entirely trivia.’’ She added that many assault weapons that didn’t exist in 1994 that have been developed since fall outside the ban’s restrictions.
Nonetheless, many gun owners are so eager for the measure to die that one group has a Web site counting down the minutes until the law is wiped from the books.
Some gun enthusiasts report that manufacturers are ready to start shipping kits for converting legal guns to preban configurations as early as Tuesday.
Robert Ricker, a former NRA official who now consults with gun control groups, foresees a ‘‘buying frenzy’’ for the previously banned militarystyle weapons and highcapacity magazines.
‘‘Gun owners are thinking, ‘If John Kerry gets elected, chances are that a stiffer ban, or a reauthorization, will eventually happen, so I had better get my assault weapon now.’ . . . I think the industry’s mantra is going to be, ‘Buy your wife a high-capacity magazine for Christmas while you can.’ ’’
A University of Pennsylvania study conducted earlier this year concluded that gun manufacturers might introduce assault weapons models and large-capacity magazines, ‘‘perhaps in substantial numbers.’’
‘‘Pre-ban assault weapons may lose value and novelty, prompting some of their owners to sell them in undocumented second-hand markets where they can more easily reach high-risk users, such as criminals, terrorists and other potential mass murderers,’’ the study warned.
The Consumer Federation of America, which conducted a survey of gun industry plans, predicted that once the law expires, assault weapons manufacturers, ‘‘fueled by gun buyer nostalgia,’’’ will ‘‘blitz the market’’ with new models of guns banned under the 1994 law.
Robert J. Spitzer, a political scientist at State University of New York at Cortland and author of ‘‘The Politics of Gun Control,’’ said the lapsing of the ban would lead to greater firepower on the streets as banned weapons returned to circulation. He said large-capacity magazines would become more available.
‘‘These have no hunting or sporting purpose, but are very appealing to criminals because they mean less reloading,’’ Spitzer said. ‘‘Some of the most horrific mass shootings in recent years were halted only when the perpetrators stopped to reload.’’
Lawrence G. Keane, senior vice president and general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the industry’s trade group, said target shooters would use magazines that could hold more than 10 rounds.
‘‘Reports of police officers needing to fire numerous rounds before being able to stop an assailant prompted the demand for highercapacity semiautomatic pistols in the 1980s,’’ said Jeff Reh, general counsel for Beretta U.S.A. Corp. ‘‘Business owners or homeowners who use a pistol for self-defense have the same need.’’