Let's rid our streets of assault weapons

January 30, 2004|By Arthur J. Magida

DESPITE SEPT. 11, 2001, changing the calculus of our lives, little attention has gone to a looming deadline that'll make this country even more hospitable to really bad guys: the expiration in September of the federal ban on assault weapons.

The 1994 law, which forbids manufacturing 19 different types of assault weapons, included a "sunset" clause as a sly way to get the bill through Congress.

For some legislators, a decade minus certain weapons that lack any conceivable recreational use - unless you consider homicide to be a recreational sport - was just enough to earn their vote. They were betting that come Sept. 13, 2004, when the ban expires, a government allergic to gun control would be in the ascendancy.

Given the GOP hammerlock in Washington, they may have been right.

Anyone who has effective gun control in his or her sights needs to take a walk around town to figure out why the law not only should remain on the books, but be strengthened: If U.N. inspectors had visited certain Baltimore neighborhoods, they may have found more weapons of mass destruction there than they did in Iraq.

With luck, the U.N. Security Council could have stemmed some of the 271 murders that occurred in Baltimore last year, up by 18 from 2002. Too many of these were from multiple gunshots, clearly a statement from the drug dealers responsible for the high murder rate regarding the consequences of getting on their wrong side.

Since federal law only bans pistols with two or more military-style features (a flash suppressor, a forward pistol grip or a grenade launcher), plenty of these weapons are in the wrong hands. And now so many guns are being manufactured that mimic assault weapons - legally, given the current law's loopholes - that the Washington-area snipers paralyzed an entire region with a Model XM15 manufactured by Bushmaster, a Maine company that once catered exclusively to sportsmen.

The law should be broader and tougher, not dead and toothless. With that in mind, Maryland's legislature will debate a bill this session that would do at the state level what may not happen in Washington.

A statute proposed by state Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat, and Del. Neil F. Quinter, a Howard County Democrat, would ban 45 weapons, including AK-47s, Uzis, M-16s, Street Sweepers and the Bushmaster semiautomatic. The bill would also prohibit pistols that have just one military-style feature, not the two or more features banned under current federal law.

With nearly two-thirds of Marylanders favoring a ban on selling assault weapons, the bill should sail through Annapolis. But Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who's called gun control a "fringe issue," prefers stiffer sentences for gun crimes to actually keeping guns out of the wrong hands.

Apparently, he'd rather let the market determine what sells and what doesn't and then trust what consumers will do with their shiny new weapons. The governor's faith in human nature is admirable; his knowledge about what happens when despicable weapons end up with despicable people is contemptible.

The times have been scary enough since 9/11.

Too many insane firearms are in the hands of too many insane and angry and desperate people.

The desirable goal, the sensible goal, is to rid our civilization of weapons of mass murder - not to tolerate leaders of mass obstruction.

Arthur J. Magida, writer in residence at the University of Baltimore, is author of The Rabbi and the Hit Man (HarperCollins, 2003).

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