Disassembling the assault-gun ban

September 13, 2004|By Christopher S. Koper

THE MOST important part of the semiautomatic assault weapons ban that expires today is probably the restriction on large ammunition magazines, not the ban on military-style firearms. New research findings could provide the basis for a compromise between pro- and anti-ban legislators.

The ban attempts to reduce crimes committed with semiautomatics having large ammunition capacities - which enable shooters to fire many shots rapidly - and other outward, military-style features such as flash hiders, threaded barrels for silencers and bayonet mounts. Those features are useful in nighttime military assaults, Mafia hits and hand-to-hand combat but unnecessary in shooting sports or self-defense.

The law prohibits 19 named gun models plus other semiautomatics having two or more military-style features. But removing the guns' military features, as some manufacturers have done, is sufficient to make the weapons legal. So the law doesn't really ban guns, it just limits accessories.

The most important restriction is the law's ban on large-capacity ammunition magazines, defined as those holding more than 10 rounds. Why is this important?

A large magazine is the key component of an assault weapon because it allows the shooter to fire up to 100 rounds without reloading. Removing the magazines from these guns limits their firepower.

Second, the magazine ban potentially affects more gun crimes because many nonbanned semiautomatics also accept large magazines. Despite their notoriety, assault weapons were used in only about 2 percent of gun crimes before the ban, while guns equipped with large magazines were used in up to 25 percent of gun crimes.

So is the ban working? It's a work in progress.

Reducing crimes with these guns and magazines could take time because it's still legal to own and sell those manufactured before the ban's effective date, Sept. 13, 1994. That's a stock of at least 1.5 million assault weapons and nearly 25 million guns equipped with large magazines. Gun industry sources estimated that 25 million large magazines still were available for sale in the United States as of 1995.

Perhaps surprisingly, the stock of large magazines has continued to grow because it's still legal to import those made before the ban. Importers brought in 4.7 million for commercial use from 1995 to 2000 and received authorization to import an additional 42 million that may be on the way.

Trends in crimes with these guns and magazines have been mixed, according to new analyses conducted at the University of Pennsylvania. National data and data from several big cities, such as Baltimore, Miami and Milwaukee, Wis., show that the share of gun crimes involving assault weapons has fallen since the ban, typically by a third or more.

But this decline was offset throughout at least the late 1990s by steady or rising use of other guns equipped with large magazines. In Baltimore, for example, the share of violent gun crimes involving assault weapons dropped from 2 percent before the ban to 1.2 percent after the ban, a reduction of 40 percent. But the share involving any gun with a large magazine held steady at about 14 percent.

As a result, it's hard to credit the ban with any of the nation's recent drop in gun violence. But the law's effects are still unfolding and may not be fully felt for several years, particularly if imports of large magazines continue.

Would extending the ban reduce gun violence?

Offenders who can't get assault weapons and large magazines can certainly commit crimes with other guns and smaller magazines. But some studies suggest this substitution might reduce shooting deaths and injuries - the most serious gun crimes - by reducing the number of shots fired in gun attacks.

Available evidence is too limited to make firm projections, but attackers using semiautomatics to spray more than 10 shots may be responsible for up to 5 percent of shooting victims, based on our study of handgun attacks in Jersey City, N.J. That's enough to suggest that fewer attacks with large magazines could produce a small reduction in shootings even if some offenders have the foresight to carry more than one small magazine and have the time and poise to reload during an attack. Just don't expect dramatic changes.

The political stakes are high. The gun lobby is one of the most powerful in Washington, and passing the ban may have cost Democrats control of Congress in 1994. But anti-ban legislators face risks in allowing the ban's expiration. Gun deaths and injuries could rise. Also, making assault weapons and large magazines more accessible to criminals and others who might use them in highly publicized mass shootings could provoke a strong reaction.

Could renewal of just the magazine ban and restriction of imports offer a workable compromise? Most of the public supports the magazine ban, and it puts little burden on gun owners. It's something for Congress to consider.

Christopher S. Koper, a research associate with the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, recently completed a study of the ban for the U.S. Department of Justice. The views expressed are his own.

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