Government & Constitution

Let Ineffective ‘Assault Weapons’ Ban Expire

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R.-Tex.), the tough conservative liberals love to hate, provoked a mini-furor not long ago by declaring that the Republican-controlled House would not renew Congress’ 1994 ban on so-called assault weapons. Only reflexive gun banners and the uninformed can have been disconcerted. The 1994 ban proved predictably ineffective. Letting it expire on schedule in 2004 would change, well, almost nothing. The ban, championed by California’s formidable Sen. Dianne Feinstein, (D.) was sold on a singularly false, if well-intentioned, premise–that the semi-automatic (one shot for each trigger pull), civilian versions of certain military-type rifles were major contributors to crime- These firearms, we were typically told by ban advocates, were the “guns of choice for gang bangers, drug dealers and street criminals.” Wrong, wrong, wrong.

In fact, the truth was exactly opposite. The U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the FBI, the law enforcement statistics of every state bothering to count and the careful research of criminologists all told the same story: Rifles of any type are used in only a tiny fraction of gun crimes-the preferred firearm for nearly all criminals being the easily concealed handgun- The criminal use of rifles dubbed assault weapons is rarer still. Indeed, so-called assault rifles are the least likely firearms to be used in crime.

FBI statistics show that rifles of any description are used in only about 3% of homicides each year. Data compiled by criminologist Gary Kleck put the frequency of assault weapons use in all violent crime at 0.5%.

In California, a statewide survey of law enforcement agencies by the state Department of Justice found that a mere 3.7% of firearms used in homicides and assaults were assault weapons. A Trenton, N.J., deputy police chief said his officers “are more likely to confront an escaped tiger from the local zoo than to confront an assault rifle in the hands of a drug-crazed killer on the streets.”

No wonder, then, that banning this arbitrarily defined class of firearms had no discernible effect on crime.

The U.S. Department of Justice conducted two studies of the consequences of the 1994 assault weapons ban. In 1999, Bill Clinton’s Justice Department looked exhaustively at the ban’s effects. It concluded that “the public safety benefits of the 1994 ban have not yet been demonstrated.” In 2001, a second Justice Department review similarly found no evidence that the ban had a statistically significant effect on violent crime. A congressionally mandated study by the Urban Institute reached comparable conclusions.

Banning Feinstein’s 19 types of semi-automatic rifles and pistols because they have two or more military-style features-such as a bayonet lug, pistol grip or flash suppressor-is irrelevant to crime. When was the last drive-by bayoneting?

The Feinstein ban’s prohibition on newly manufactured ammunition magazines capable of containing more than 10 rounds, for rifles or handguns, might seem a prudent public-safety precaution. But, again, there is no conclusive evidence over nearly a decade that smaller-capacity magazines have any crime-reduction or violence-reduction effects.

But isn’t there something to be said for the gun banners’ chronic plea that any restrictions reducing the numbers of guns Americans own makes society safer?

In a word, no.

The 200 million-plus privately owned firearms in the United States grew by an estimated 37 million during the 1990s. If the simplistic notion that more guns equal more crime and more homicides had any validity, crime rates would have climbed during the decade. Instead, rates for serious and violent crime fell every year from 1991 through the end of the decade. Despite those 37 million more guns, murder rates in many major American cities fell to the lowest levels in 40 years.

Thirty-five states have enacted “right-to-carry” legislation allowing law-abiding citizens a license to carry a concealed weapon. In most if not all of these 35 states, homicide rates declined after ordinary citizens were permitted the means of self-defense.

Most of the 19 rifle and pistol types banned by Feinstein’s 1994 amendment were already barred from import into the United States by order of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in 1989. Even if Feinstein’s ban expires, the BATF’s import restrictions would still be in place. The two domestic manufacturers of assault-style pistols are out of business. That leaves a possible resumption in production of one domestically produced rifle, the Colt AR-15, on Feinstein’s list as the sole likely consequence of the 1994 ban’s expiration. Feinstein’s magazine-capacity restrictions would lapse with the ban’s expiration. But they are widely circumvented now anyway by the vast numbers of pre-ban magazines legally available.

The gun banners also miscalculate the political support for more restrictions that limit the firearm-owning rights of law-abiding citizens.

Feinstein would expand her ban if she could but she cannot get 51 votes in the Senate. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat, proposes banning millions more semi-automatic rifles and pistols owned and used by American hunters, sport shooters and collectors. Her bill stands no chance.

A White House aide says President Bush favors extending the Feinstein ban, a position he took with no visible conviction during the 2000 campaign. Bush himself says nothing now, no doubt because he knows the gun-rights vote in swing states Arkansas, Tennessee and West Virginia made him president.

DeLay predicts the House won’t vote to make the 1994 ban permanent. He’s probably right, and that’s no loss to the country‚Ķ


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