The strange logic of assault weapons ban

May 28, 2004|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - An organization called the Million Mom March held a rally in Washington on Mother's Day to urge a renewal of the 1994 federal assault weapons ban. If you must know, the turnout was about 997,500 short. But the advocates are not easily discouraged. Afterward, they launched a vehicle called the Big Pink Rig on a "Halt the Assault Tour." The bus will crisscross the nation until September, when the ban is scheduled to expire.

The 1994 law was a monument to President Bill Clinton's distinctive political genius - which generally involved tiny symbolic changes that pleased particular constituencies without actually having much effect. It prohibited the manufacture, sale or import of 19 different firearms, along with magazines holding more than 10 rounds.

All the rhetoric behind the bill gave the impression we were outlawing military machine guns, an impression fed by references to the need to get AK-47s off the streets. But machine guns were effectively banned long ago, and the 1994 law didn't affect them.

The guns used by the Red Army and assorted guerrillas around the world are indeed automatic weapons, firing up to 100 rounds a minute with a single squeeze of the trigger. But the so-called AK-47s allowed before the ban were semiautomatics, which fire only once each time the trigger is pulled.

Semiautomatic pistols, shotguns and rifles are commonplace firearms in this country, and almost all of them remain legal. They were not targeted even though they are functionally identical to the "assault weapons" that were forbidden. The latter firearms were banned not because they fire faster or do more damage than other guns, but because they look scary.

The Million Mom March charges that these weapons are "far more powerful than conventional guns" and "able to pierce body armor." But as Don B. Kates, co-author of Armed: New Perspectives on Gun Control, points out, "All rifle rounds [except mere .22s] will pierce body armor."

The features that flagged these guns as intolerable, such as bayonet mounts and folding stocks, are features that have nothing to do with their killing power. The ban is the moral equivalent of banning red cars because they look too fast.

Some gun-control supporters acknowledge as much. Tom Diaz of the Violence Policy Center said earlier this year, "If the existing assault weapons ban expires, I personally do not believe it will make one whit of difference in terms of our objective, which is reducing death and injury and getting a particularly lethal class of firearms off the streets." The VPC now says a broader ban is needed.

Why? Because "gun makers have easily evaded the law by making slight, cosmetic changes to banned guns and continued their sale unimpeded." But if you ban red cars and automakers increase their output of maroon ones, that's not evading the law - that's complying with the law.

Firearms manufacturers have eliminated the features that made their weapons unacceptable, and now the critics complain that the weapons are still unacceptable. So why did they worry about those features to begin with? And why expand the ban to get rid of these semiautomatics while allowing others that perform identically?

The VPC claims that one out of five police officers killed in the line of duty in recent years was shot with an assault weapon. But this includes "assault weapons" that were not banned by the 1994 law, which suggests a conveniently elastic definition. The organization concludes that the persistence of these guns in police shootings proves the need for a more extensive law. In reality, it suggests that no ban will matter much.

Why? Because gun companies will offer new guns that are not covered by the ban. Because hundreds of thousands of "assault weapons" sold before 1994 remain in legal circulation. Because Americans own lots of other firearms - some 260 million rifles, handguns and shotguns - that will serve as perfectly adequate substitutes for any criminal with mayhem on his mind. And because the volume and type of guns in our society don't dictate the level of crime: Homicides have been dropping since 1991.

But such simple realities are lost on groups such as the Million Mom March and the Violence Policy Center. For every failure of gun control, they have a solution: more of it.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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