WASHINGTON -- A top police official in Maryland has urged Congress to ban the domestic production and sale of assault weapons so that police departments can better address what he called the domestic arms race.
Cornelius J. Behan, chief of the Baltimore County police department, yesterday told the House subcommittee on crime and criminal justice that the public should not be allowed to buy assault weapons, which are specifically designed for military purposes.
"As a police administrator, I don't want to see us get to the point where our officers are forced to patrol our streets with fully automatic weapons," Behan said. "We have already purchased fully automatic weapons for our SWAT teams. Where does it stop?"
Behan said that assault weapons are widely used by criminals rather than for sporting or collecting activities. He said an assault weapon now is 20 times more likely to be used in a crime than a conventional firearm.
He said his department seized 46 assault weapons in the first six months of this year, 70 in 1990.
"The primary purpose of such anti-personnel weaponry is to spray high volumes of ammunition at short ranges in combat situations," Behan said. "Any sporting usage is clearly secondary and must be measured against the very real threat not only to the citizens of this country, but also the law enforcement personnel who protect them."
Behan, representing the police chiefs of major cities at the hearing, said he favors private ownership of firearms, but sees no need for the public to have access to such lethal weapons as the AK-47, Uzi, MAC-10 and TEC-9.
"Whether the gun lobby wants to admit it or not, the assault weapon is fast becoming the favored weapon of the sophisticated drug dealer, the urban street gang and the ultra-fanatical paramilitary hate group," he said.
In his prepared testimony, Behan also detailed numerous cases in recent years in which assault weapons were used. Among those was the case of Patrick Purdy, who in 1989 used an AK-47 to kill five children and wound 29 others at a California elementary school.
In 1986, Congress outlawed the importation of new automatic weapons for sale to civilians. Domestic production and sale of such firearms remains legal, however.
Depending on whose numbers are cited, -- either the National Rifle Association or the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms -- there are between 750,000 and 1 million assault weapons currently in private hands.
Congress has been pressured by anti-gun lobbyists to outlaw the domestic production and sale of the weapons. The NRA and other gun lobbyists are vehemently opposed to the idea.
Joseph Phillips, an NRA spokesman who testified at the hearing, said the problem lies in the users of the weapons, not the weapons themselves. Phillips attacked the effort to outlaw assault weapons, saying there is no real definition of an assault weapon.
"The term 'assault weapon' is semantic chicanery used to exploit and foster the public's confusion between semiautomatic and fully automatic firearms," Phillips said. "A military style semiautomatic rifle is identical to those categorized as suitable for sporting purposes."
Phillips contended that if specific types of semiautomatic or automatic weapons were outlawed, criminals would likely be the only ones able to get their hands on them.
Other measures proposed by lawmakers include limiting the weapons to clips of 15 rounds and allowing those who now own assault weapons to keep them while prohibiting future sales.