FBI Director William Sessions said Friday that semiautomatic assault weapons have a "very destructive impact on American society and the people" but declined to say whether they should be outlawed.

In the strongest statement yet from a Bush administration official about the weapons, Sessions echoed concerns expressed by state and local law enforcement following the Jan. 17 fatal shootings of five California children with a Soviet-style AK-47 rifle."The presence of these weapons does have a very destructive impact on American society and the people," Sessions told reporters.

"Tragedy after tragedy flows from it," Sessions said. "People and law enforcement officers are victims of these crimes."

"I am sorry we are outgunned and outmanned in that respect," the director said.

But Sessions would not say whether he agreed with other law enforcement officials who are calling for a ban on the weapons.

"It's not my responsiblity to make that kind of decision," Sessions said. "That's a political debate I will not participate in."

President Bush has resisted calls for outlawing the weapons, many of which can be altered to become automatic rifles, such as the weapon a man used to spray more than 100 rounds of ammunition outside an elementary school in Stockton, Calif.

The president, however, said earlier this week that he wanted to find a method of preventing the criminal use of the weapons while doing "what's right by the legitimate sportsman."

Bush, a member of the National Rifle Association, said he had asked William Bennett, picked by the president to direct the nation's war on drugs, to study the proliferation of assault weapons.

Sessions, meanwhile, defended the FBI's background investigation of John Tower during the former Texas senator's unsuccessful bid to win Senate confirmation as defense secretary.

The lengthy investigation of Tower prompted criticism by some senators that the FBI was conveying unsupported rumors and allegations about the former Republican senator.

Tower's drinking habits, relationships with women and financial ties were criticized during the debate leading up to Thursday's 53-47 Senate vote to reject the nominee.

But Sessions, who removed himself from the Tower investigation because of past political ties, said "the bureau carried out its function in this case as I'm sure it did in hundreds of other cases."