End of assault-weapons ban produces little change in gun sales, crime

Exemptions made arms available over duration

April 24, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Despite dire predictions that the streets would be awash in military-style guns, the expiration of the decade-long assault weapons ban in September has not set off a sustained surge in the weapons' sales, gun makers and sellers say. It also has not caused any noticeable increase in gun crime in the past seven months, according to several metropolitan police departments.

The uneventful expiration of the assault weapons ban did not surprise gun owners, nor did it surprise some advocates of gun control.

Rather, it underscored what many of them had said all along: that the ban was porous - so porous that assault weapons remained widely available throughout their prohibition.

"The whole time that the American public thought there was an assault weapons ban, there never really was one," said Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center, a gun-control group.

What's more, law enforcement officials say that military-style weapons, which were never used in many gun crimes but did enjoy some vogue in the years before the ban took effect, seem to have gone out of style in criminal circles.

"Back in the early '90s, criminals wanted those Rambo-type weapons they could brandish," said Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police. "Today they are much happier with a 9 mm handgun they can stick in their belt."

When the ban took effect in 1994, it exempted more than 1.5 million assault weapons already in private hands. Over the next 10 years, at least 1.17 million more assault weapons were produced - legitimately - by manufacturers that availed themselves of loopholes in the law, according to an analysis of firearms production data by the Violence Policy Center.

Throughout the decade-long ban, the gun manufacturer DPMS/Panther Arms of Minnesota continued selling assault rifles to civilians by the tens of thousands. In compliance with the ban, the firearms manufacturer "sporterized" the military-style weapons, sawing off bayonet lugs, securing stocks so they were not collapsible and adding muzzle brakes. But the changes did not alter the guns' essence; they were still semiautomatic rifles with pistol grips.

After the ban expired in September, DPMS reintroduced its full-featured weapons to the civilian market and enjoyed a slight spike in sales. That increase was short-lived, however, and predictably so, said Randy E. Luth, the company's owner.

"I never thought the sunset of the ban would be that big a deal," Luth said.

No gun production data are yet available for the seven months since the ban expired. And some gun-control advocates say they don't trust the self-reporting of gun industry representatives, who may want to play down the volume of their sales to ward off a revival of the ban.

Indeed, a replica of the ban is again before the Senate.

"In my view, the assault weapons legislation was working," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and a chief sponsor of the new bill. "It was drying up supply and driving up prices. The number of those guns used in crimes dropped because they were less available."

Assault weapons account for a small fraction of gun crimes: about 2 percent, according to most studies, and no more than 8 percent. But they have been used in many high-profile shootings. The snipers in the 2002 Washington-area shootings used semiautomatic assault rifles that were copycat versions of banned carbines.

Gun crime has plummeted since the early 1990s. But a study for the National Institute of Justice said that it could not "clearly credit the ban with any of the nation's recent drop in gun violence."

Research for the study in several cities did show a significant decline in the criminal use of assault weapons during the ban. According to the study, however, that decline was offset by the "steady or rising use" of other guns equipped with high-capacity magazines - ammunition-feeding devices that hold more than 10 rounds.

While the 1994 ban prohibited the manufacture and sale of such magazines, it did not outlaw an estimated 25 million of them already in circulation, nor did it stop the importation of millions more into the country.

Feinstein said she wished she could outlaw the "flood of big clips" from abroad, calling that the "one big loophole" in the ban. But that would require amending the bill, and such Republicans as Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia and Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio are willing to back it only without amendments, she said.

Some gun-control advocates say it is pointless to reintroduce the 1994 ban without amending it to include large magazines and a wider range of guns. They see more promise in enacting or strengthening state or local bans. Seven states - California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey and New York - already have bans, most based on the federal one. The model ban, gun-control advocates say, is a comprehensive one in California (referred to as "Commiefornia" on some gun enthusiast Web sites).

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