The line of fire

July 05, 2004

THEY BURIED Carlos Owen, Harley Chisholm III, and Charles Bennett last month. The three Birmingham, Ala., police officers were serving an arrest warrant in one of the city's blighted neighborhoods when they were shot and killed. And the incident has left people in that conservative, gun-owning part of the country wondering whether maybe some weapons shouldn't be so widely available.

The gun that killed the officers was an SKS, a rifle similar to the notorious Russian AK-47. It's a military-style assault weapon and, according to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a rifle often used against law enforcement officers. It fires a 7.62 mm round at 2,300 feet per second, a velocity that's capable of penetrating police body armor. Earlier this year, two other Alabama police officers were killed in the line of duty. An SKS was used in both shootings.

Why is this cop-killing gun allowed in circulation in this country? It's not outlawed by the 10-year-old federal assault weapons ban. The AK-47 was, but the makers of the SKS found a way around the ban by making some minor modifications. Yet their gun still has some of the most troubling qualities of an assault weapon - an ability to accept a high-capacity magazine and, even as a semiautomatic, spray a large number of large bullets powerfully and accurately.

That, and the fact that it's cheap and lethal-looking, has made the SKS a popular gun among criminals. An SKS can be purchased for as little as $200. A used magazine capable of holding 40 rounds might cost an extra $5. It's not a particularly useful gun for hunting. It's not even that popular with the general law-abiding public. All models of assault weapons represent less than 5 percent of the guns in circulation.

Yet here we are just a few months shy of the day the federal assault weapons ban is set to expire and there's little hope it will be renewed. It should be renewed - and expanded to cover guns such as the SKS. President Bush said four years ago that he supported an extension of the assault weapons ban. A majority of the Senate supports it, too. Right-wing House Republicans don't. President Bush could probably overcome that opposition, but he won't even talk about the issue. Clearly, he'd rather the whole thing went away quietly.

Of course it won't go away for the families of those murdered Birmingham police officers. While a renewal wouldn't take the existing SKS rifles off the street, letting the ban expire in September would opens the door to even deadlier models. What message would that decision send to future cop-killers? A lot of Americans, gun owners and police officers included, have been left to ponder: What compelling reason is there to allow bad guys to own assault weapons? And how can the president of the United States continue to claim to support a ban but not lift a finger for the cause?

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