Assault Weapons: How Serious a Problem?

March 17, 1991|By J. S. BAINBRIDGE JR.

You know the argument is getting out of hand when one side accuses the other of being allied with the forces of evil. In essence, that's what has happened in the General Assembly debate over assault weapons this year.

So let's all put down our weapons and take a breath -- just for a minute.

First, let us assume that Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the gun-control proponents who want virtually to ban assault weapon ownership in Maryland love the Constitution and all its parts and care for individual liberty. Take on faith the notion that these folks are good Americans.

And then, let's assume that not all who favor private ownership of semi-automatic firearms are macho maniacs with bunker mentalities and nervous trigger fingers. Most assault weapon owners probably object to mass murder.

And, finally, we have to believe that both legitimate gun owners and gun-control advocates want to see crime curtailed and those who misuse firearms punished. Crime control is, after all, what the assault weapons debate is about at its most honest moment, and no one claims that we don't have too much gun-related crime.

The so-called assault weapons in the current debate are semi-automatic, which means they fire one shot each time the trigger is pulled, and the shooter does not have to chamber a new shell. They are usually styled after military weapons; however, they lack the ability to fire like machine guns, which keep blasting away as long as the triggers are held back and there are cartridges already loaded. The legislation under consideration in Annapolis does not cover all semi-automatic weapons; it lists 38 specific guns for which sales would be banned.

There are lots of assault weapons out there "on the street." No one really quibbles with that observation, either. One government estimate in 1989 put the number at 2 to 3 million nationwide. There is no way to get a hard figure, but a safe bet is that there are more than a million in circulation, most of which were probably acquired over the last decade or two.

You also find lots of assault weapons on television and in the movies, where both good guys and bad guys seem to like them. In varying degrees they look deadly and make lots of dramatic sound and light. Whatever they are aimed at -- from concrete to craniums -- blows up spectacularly on the screen.

Exactly how much real carnage can be attributed to assault weapons, however, is not clear. Some big city police chiefs say that they are becoming a serious public safety problem. They are the "weapons of choice" for drug dealers, we are told, and have led to a daily slaughter of police officers and innocents alike; our streets are awash in blood spilled by assault gun fire.

But a look at the FBI's crime reports does not reveal assault weapons to have the kind of awesome presence that some people fear. In 1974, there were 18,627 murders in the country, 55 percent of them committed with rifles or handguns. In 1989 -- the latest year for which the FBI has published statistics for its Uniform Crime Reports -- the number of murders nationwide was 18,954, with firearms that were not shotguns representing about 52 percent of the total. The ratio of rifles to handguns (most assault weapons qualify as rifles) remained pretty much the same: one rifle for every ten handguns.

Violent attacks not ending in death show a similar pattern: About 24 percent of the 618,502 "aggravated assaults" committed in 1980 were with firearms; of the 809,031 aggravated assaults in 1989, about 21.5 percent involved guns. There is no breakdown of the types of weapons used, so we can't be sure whether there were more non-lethal assaults from the kind of semi-automatic firearms now under attack.

What is evident is that an increased presence of assault weapons has not resulted in a new crime wave. As for robberies, 40 percent of the 1980 holdups were with firearms in general compared with about a third for that type of crime in 1989.

When it comes to law enforcement officers killed or attacked in the United States, the FBI statistics fail to show that assault weapons are having much, if any, impact. In 1980, 104 police officers were killed, 79 percent of them by handguns or rifles. In 1989, 66 police officers met such fates, 76 percent at the hands of people using rifles or handguns. A breakdown of the calibers of the firearms used in the 1989 slayings shows that the overwhelming majority of the guns were most likely not military-style rifles. As in other murders, handguns were the preferred weapons.

As far as law enforcement officers assaulted in the United States, the FBI figures show that 5.7 percent of the 57,847 police victims in 1980 were attacked with firearms. In 1989, 62,172 police officers were assaulted, 5.1 percent of them with firearms. For every 100 police officers in 1980, one was assaulted with a firearm; in 1989, the figure was less than one.

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