Now that we've said goodbye to a gun ban that wasn't

September 16, 2004|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Let's be perfectly candid about the demise - after 10 years - of the dearly departed federal "ban" on "assault weapons." It didn't really ban anything.

Ask any kid on any high-crime street in America. He or she can tell you.

Yes, crime rates overall took a welcome dip while the law was in effect in the 1990s, but that dip can be attributed to many factors, including aggressive arrests and prosecutions. Meanwhile, the supply of heavy-duty weapons hardly was affected, thanks to the law's limits and loopholes.

The law, which expired Monday from lack of support from the White House and Congress, prohibited 19 specific models of military-style semiautomatic rifles. It also limited magazines to 10 rounds and prohibited rifles with two or more of the following features: a collapsing stock, pistol grip, flash suppressor, bayonet mount or grenade launcher.

Gun manufacturers wiggled around the ban by making the old weapons under new names and without the prohibited features. For example, you could still buy a used 16-round semiautomatic pistol or settle for a 10-round version, if you wanted a new one, and find a higher-capacity clip that still could be sold if it was made before the ban.

Criminals wiggled around the ban, too. The D.C.-area snipers, for example, used a not-banned Bushmaster XM-15 rifle that was a civilian version of the banned military M-16 to kill six people in 2002.

The ineffectiveness of the law is not disputed by pro-gun groups such as the National Rifle Association or gun control groups such as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. The NRA thinks the law went too far, that it needlessly penalized law-abiding gun buyers without hurting criminals. Its supporters will tell you that it did not go far enough.

The University of Pennsylvania National Annenberg Election Survey in April found that 71 percent of respondents, including 64 percent of those in households with guns, supported a renewal of the assault weapons ban.

But the single-issue voters against gun controls, though a minority, are committed and passionate enough to frighten many politicians into submission, no matter what the majority tells pollsters. Former Vice President Al Gore's losses in Arkansas and West Virginia in the 2000 presidential election, for example, are widely blamed on the NRA's opposition. A win in either state would have earned him the presidency.

And that helps to explain how President Bush has had it both ways on the issue. "It makes no sense for assault weapons to be around our society," he said during his 2000 campaign. If Congress sent him a bill to renew the ban, he would sign it, he said.

But four years later, the conservative Congress was not about to send him such a bill. And the president, who strong-armed Congress to pass his tax cuts, his Medicare drug benefit plan and his Iraq war resolution, failed to give even a nod or a wink in defense of the so-called weapons ban.

If supporters of the ban really knew how weak the ban was, they would change their minds, NRA leaders say. I agree. A lot of them would change their minds to demand stronger legislation. That's what the NRA is really worried about.

In the meantime, we need more debate about promising alternatives, such as Project Exile, a Clinton-era program that won enthusiastic support from both the Bradys and from NRA leaders such as Charlton Heston and Wayne LaPierre.

Initiated in 1997 by the U.S. attorney's office in Richmond, Va., Project Exile aggressively arrests, incarcerates, detains, prosecutes and sentences anyone who commits a crime with a gun in his possession. The rate of criminals carrying guns reportedly was cut almost in half once word got around that mere possession of a firearm would land you in federal prison.

Zero-tolerance programs always raise legitimate concerns about civil liberties. But this is a debate we really need to have. Exile-like programs are spreading across the country for a very good reason: Instead of just targeting guns, the programs target the outlaws who misuse guns. It's not a perfect solution, but it makes more sense than a gun ban that mostly fires blanks.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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