WASHINGTON - One of Congress' staunchest opponents of gun control suggests in an article in "Guns and Ammo" that the government went after the Branch Davidians near Waco, Texas, to whip up support for a ban on assault-style firearms.
Administration officials swiftly denounced the stand taken by Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, in the magazine's June issue.
Stockman wrote that the government "executed" the more than 80 cult members who died during the April 19, 1993, fire that began after the FBI started a tear-gas operation following a lengthy standoff.
"These men, women and children were burned to death because they owned guns that the government did not wish them to have," he wrote in the magazine, which has a circulation of nearly 600,000.
"Waco was supposed to be a way for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Clinton administration to prove the need for a ban on so-called `assault weapons,' " Stockman wrote.
Congress passed that ban as part of last year's crime law, and Stockman is trying to repeal the ban.
White House spokeswoman Ginny Terzano called Stockman's allegation "outrageous and absurd."
"In the current climate, it might be best for people to refrain from inflammatory remarks that endanger the lives of law-enforcement officers," said Justice Department spokesman Carl Stern.
Rep. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a gun-control advocate, said, "For somebody to believe that the Waco debacle was organized by the federal government to help pass gun laws is as loony a statement as I've ever heard a congressman make."
Richard Aborn, president of Handgun Control Inc. that supported the weapons ban, said Stockman's comments "fuel and legitimize the paranoia that exists in the country."
Kent Adams, a county Republican chairman in Stockman's district, said he supported Stockman but backed away from the lawmaker's suggestion that the administration "encouraged" the Waco confrontation for political benefit.
"I don't think Steve meant to say that the administration planned the outcome, meaning the loss of all those lives in Waco, and I don't think anyone would subscribe to that meaning," Adams said.
He said the Stockman article "attempts to make the same point he has been making for a long time - that the liberal Democrats have an agenda that includes a continued attack on the private ownership of guns in America."
"He (Stockman) is also steadfast in his opposition to lawlessness and terrorism."
Stockman said in an interview yesterday that he stood by the article he wrote in February.
"A few things could have been said a little better," he said, including a statement suggesting Attorney General Janet Reno should have faced premeditated murder charges for her role in the raid.
At the same time, he attacked his critics.
"What they are trying to do is portray me as the only one out there in the far right bouncing around in the wind," he said. "I'm not. I'm echoing a lot of sentiments - bipartisan sentiments - of the question of using force in which 83 people died."
Voicing concerns raised by others, Stockman said the ATF could have arrested cult leader David Koresh outside the compound. The Branch Davidians also had a track record of voluntarily appearing before law-enforcement authorities when summoned, he added.
The ATF raided the Davidian compound Feb. 28, 1993, although the cultists were tipped off and waiting for them. Four ATF agents and six Davidians were killed in the ensuing gun fight. The FBI took charge during the subsequent standoff that lasted until April 19, 1993.
Federal officials say the Davidians started the fire that consumed the complex, and the medical examiner found that a number of them died of gunshot wounds during the conflagration.
A Justice Department review cleared FBI and Justice officials of wrongdoing, but a scathing report by the Treasury Department prompted the resignation of then-ATF Director Stephen Higgins and disciplinary action against several high-ranking ATF officials.