The Media That Couldn't Shoot Straight

Can Americans now purchase assault weapons?

If you listen to some pols and mainstream media, you probably cannot answer that question.

In 1994, Congress passed and President Clinton signed a 10-year ban on so-called “assault weapons.” In reality, the bill outlawed certain semiautomatic weapons with cosmetic features that made them look, well, military.

The law banned the manufacture and importation of 19 specific models of military-style semiautomatic rifles, and limited the size of clips to 10 rounds. It also prohibited rifles with two or more of the following features — collapsible stock, pistol grip, flash suppressor, bayonet mount or grenade launcher.

The outlawed guns featured the same power as, for example, semiautomatic deer rifles, and they functioned exactly the same. But in the real world, criminals prefer either concealable handguns or illegal automatic weapons, so the banned ones failed to deter crime. Surveys of weapons seized during arrests in California, for example, found that criminals used these cosmetic “assault weapons” in approximately 2 percent of crimes.

Yet many mistakenly say the 1994 law outlawed automatic weapons — those in which rounds continue to fire until the shooter releases the trigger. Some television and newspaper reports even showed videos and photos of weapons banned prior to the ’94 law, such as Uzis and AK-47s. Even the semiautomatic versions of those weapons — those with one round released with each pull of the trigger — were already outlawed under a 1989 import ban and remain illegal. A 1986 law banned production of all new automatic weapons, grandfathered existing automatic weapons and established strict procedures for the sale of those older guns in states that did not outlaw them altogether. Since 1934, the government has banned fully automatic weapons from civilian use without special permission from the U.S. Treasury Department.

Presidential candidate John Kerry jumped on the misinformation bandwagon. “Police officers,” said Kerry, are “begging the president all across our country: Keep this ban in place so we don’t have to walk into a drug bust staring down the barrel of a military machine gun, of an Uzi or an AK-47.” On the eve of the ban’s expiration, Kerry said, “And so tomorrow, for the first time in 10 years, when a killer walks into a gun shop, when a terrorist goes to a gun show somewhere in America, when they want to purchase an AK-47 or some other military assault weapon, they’re going to hear one word, ‘Sure.'”

Many media outlets failed to accurately explain what the ban did — and did not — do, and suggested the still-banned Uzi and AK-47 imports would be on store shelves soon.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution: ” . . . Hundreds of . . . weapons dealers across Georgia and the nation can begin delivering on orders for AK-47s . . . Uzis and similar weapons banned from shelves for 10 years.”

The Associated Press version of Uzis and AK-47s purchases was picked up by papers across the country: ” . . . The federal assault weapons ban is fading out of existence today. While manufacturers look for a boom in business as people buy previously banned weapons like AK-47s, Uzis and TEC-9s, police chiefs warn of an surge in crime.”

ABC News: “If it expires, Russian AK-47 assault rifles and Israeli Uzis could become available . . . ”

Yet Kerry displayed caution in attacking the expiration of the ban. Why? Many Americans see additional gun laws as unlikely to affect crime, and many blame Al Gore’s failure to carry his home state of Tennessee in 2000 on Gore’s endorsement of further gun control laws. The San Francisco Chronicle‘s Edward Epstein, in a front-page article that read more like an editorial, explained why Democrats sigh rather than cry over the expiration: “Anyone wondering why the federal assault-weapons ban — a law that regularly draws support from more than two-thirds of Americans in polls — will expire today should look at former President Bill Clinton’s best-selling autobiography.

“In a grudging tribute to the enduring power of the National Rifle Association, Clinton acknowledges that when he was pushing for the ban’s enactment in 1994, he was warned by Democratic House leaders that forcing Democrats to vote for the measure could cost them their seats. Clinton persisted, believing the measure that banned 19 types of guns by name, along with ammunition clips of more than 10 rounds, was the right thing to do.”

The Chronicle attributed the passage of the assault-weapons ban to the resulting loss of a “whopping” 54 Democratic House seats — the worst Democratic loss in congressional elections since 1946 — giving Republicans control of the House for the first time since the 1952 election. The paper cited the “rout” of such powerful figures as Judiciary Committee Chairman Jack Brooks of Texas and Speaker Tom Foley of Washington, who were “swept out of office.” The NRA, wrote the Chronicle, said it targeted 24 House members for defeat, and 19 of them lost in 1994.

“Those who warned him,” said the Chronicle, “‘were right, and I was wrong,’ Clinton wrote. ‘The price for a safer America would be heavy casualties among its defenders.'”

Can Americans now legally purchase assault weapons? No.