Assault weapons bill also restricts clips

May 07, 1994|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Sun Staff Writer

A little-noticed provision of the assault weapons ban approved by the House Thursday would reduce the firepower of many popular handguns by outlawing the sale to civilians of magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.

The gun-ban measure, which still must be approved by a House-Senate conference committee, would force most pistol manufacturers to replace the magazines in new handguns with lower-capacity versions. It exempts police and military guns.

The limit would reverse a 20-year trend of steadily increasing handgun ammunition capacity, as semiautomatic pistols holding a dozen or more rounds have gradually won market share from traditional, six-shot revolvers. A pistol's magazine, informally called a clip, fits into the grip and feeds rounds into the chamber to be fired.

"I would say it will affect a large majority of the semiautomatics being sold today," said Baltimore Police Lt. Joe Key, supervisor of the department's firearms training section. "It's just whole bunches of them."

"About 95 percent of the semiautomatic handguns we sell carry more than 10 rounds," said Melvin Abrams, president of Valley Gun Shop in Parkville, one of Maryland's largest dealers.

Stephen P. Teret, a professor at the John Hopkins School of Public Health and an expert on gun injury, called the magazine limit "a very, very significant piece of gun legislation."

"Gun manufacturers have been proceeding down a path that makes homicide easier," he said. "You look at the statistics, and you see they've been succeeding. Now they'll be required to reverse that by making their guns a little less lethal."

The debate in Washington has centered almost exclusively on the ban on 19 assault weapons, while the magazine limit has been omitted from news stories or mentioned only in passing.

Lieutenant Key had been unaware of the magazine limit.

But by all evidence, the assault-style weapons to be banned make up only a few percent of the guns used in crime. The semiautomatic handguns subject to the magazine capacity limit, contrast, make up about half of the guns confiscated in crime in Baltimore.

In Baltimore and many other cities affected by drug-related gun violence, one consequence of higher capacity magazines has been more rounds fired in street shootouts and more bystanders hit by stray bullets. The number of gun murders and shootings has risen steadily in Baltimore in recent years, with nonfatal shootings nearly doubling between 1991 and 1993.

One of the key swing votes, Democratic Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr. of Indiana, said he decided to back the legislation at the last minute specifically because of the magazine limit.

He said he thinks high-capacity handguns, not assault weapons, are the real crime problem.

Bob McMurray, vice president of the Maryland State Rifle and Pistol Association, said many law-abiding gun owners will be shocked to learn that they will no longer be able to buy the most popular handguns in their current design.

"The 10-round magazine limit is very significant, because it will have a much broader impact than people think," he said. "Factories will have to retool."

He noted that many people who buy guns for protection choose the guns used by police. Baltimore police currently use a Glock with a 17-round magazine, while state police use a Beretta with a 15-round magazine.

"These guns, upon signing of the bill by [President] Clinton, will be illegal to sell until such time as manufacturers alter the magazine," he said.

Mr. McMurray said the entire gun measure violates what he believes is a constitutional right to keep and bear arms and predicted it would have no impact on crime. He said "scare tactics and spin" were responsible for its passage.

Vincent DeMarco, executive director of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse (MAHA), hailed the magazine limit as "a very significant development," noting that Maryland gun control advocates had some difficulty persuading the General Assembly pass a 20-round magazine limit in March, when it also banned 18 kinds of assault pistols.

"The importance of the 10-round limit is that the police won't be outgunned by the criminals anymore," he said. "It reduces the risk of a domestic arms race."

A 10-round magazine limit has been part of his organization's comprehensive gun law proposal for some time, Mr. DeMarco said.

The handguns sold by Glock Inc., the Austrian pistol maker whose guns are among the most popular in the United States today, are sold with magazines holding between 13 and 19 rounds.

The popular Beretta 92, made in Accokeek in Prince George's County and adopted in 1985 as the U.S. military sidearm, has a 15-round magazine as standard equipment.

Officials at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said the legislation would take effect immediately upon signing by President Clinton.

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