WASHINGTON (AP) _ A proposed ban on assault weapons sales took a small step forward in the Senate as gun-control forces put off difficult decisions that already have divided lawmakers.

The legislation ''will help prevent our law enforcement officers from being gunned down by drug dealers,'' Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, declared as a Senate Judiciary subcommittee cleared both his measure and a rival version 5-1.

The panel's action, which did not include a recommendation of approval, places the issue before the full Senate Judiciary Committee, which is expected to take up the measures next month.

Metzenbaum's bill, which has been modified somewhat over the last week, would ban sales of new assault weapons but not transfers of ones that already are owned by the public. It would require owners selling their guns to keep a record to make it easier to trace firearms found at crime scenes.

The measure also would require a 14-day waiting period before transfers. It specifies a list of 26 assault guns ranging from the AKS, a semiautomatic cousin of the Soviet infantryman's AK47, to sinister-looking Street Sweeper and Striker 12 round-drummed shotguns.

Also approved by the panel was a rival version sponsored by Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., that specifies nine guns the senator says are frequently used by narcotics gangs. It does not include a waiting period for transfers.

In approving both bills without a recommendation, the subcommittee on the Constitution merely put off resolving the disputes between the two, as well as the inevitable battle with forces opposed to any crackdown on assault weapons. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, vowed to introduce still another bill that would take the stress off of gun control and put the emphasis on crime control.

''The only assault these so-called assault weapons bills make is on the legitimate, law-abiding citizens,'' Hatch declared. He said both measures would ''transgress the Second Amendment rights (to bear arms) guaranteed to all law-abiding citizens in our society.''

Defining assault weapons has posed a major problem for their critics, but they generally are semiautomatic rifles and pistols with military styling as well as folding and plastic stocks, forward hand grips and other features more often seen in Rambo movies than in a traditional woodsman's gun rack.

Crack gangs warring over turf have been using the rapid-firing, high- powered weapons to spray street corners in some communities. But authorities also say there is no functional difference between the assault rifles and the semiautomatic versions of traditional hunting rifles with their brown wooden stocks.

The National Rifle Association has been highly critical of Metzenbaum's bill, and DeConcini said he expected the same kind of opposition to his measure, even though he has a strong pro-gun voting record. Metzenbaum registered a strongly worded complaint against the power of gun groups.

''As I know so well, any legislative initiative dealing with firearms, no matter how modest and reasonable, is inevitably attacked by the gun lobby as a threat to sportsmen and legitimate gun owners,'' he said. ''I am sure Sen. DeConcini will be attacked as well, even though he has introduced a modest and careful measure.''

Lawmakers are also divided over whether they should await a cue from President Bush before taking the next step.

''I think we can make up our minds without hearing from President Bush on this,'' Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.

He urged speed, saying that ''the American people want action.''

''We didn't have the guts to face up to the handguns and the issue of concealable guns and now the question is whether we are going to have the guts to face up to assault weapons,'' he said.

DeConcini and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., however, said lawmakers should get Bush administration input lest the president veto the finished product. They said support to override a veto and pass such a bill over the president's objections could well be missing.

''If we don't think we've got the administration's support, I don't think we can push a bill,'' DeConcini said.

The administration has banned imports of many assault weapons but many of them are made in America.

The Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms says that before Bush imposed his temporary import ban, foreign-made weapons accounted for about 25 percent of the American market.