When a rash of gun murders takes place, it makes sense for the police to do one of two things: renew tactics that have been effective in the past at curbing homicides, or embrace ideas that have not been tried before. But those options don’t appeal to Chicago Police Supt. Jody Weis. What he proposes is a crackdown on assault weapons.
I’m tempted to say this is the moral equivalent of a placebo — a sugar pill that is irrelevant to the malady at hand. But that would be unfair. Placebos, after all, sometimes have a positive effect. Assault weapons bans, not so much.
If there are too many guns in Chicago, it’s not because of any statutory oversight. The city has long outlawed the sale and possession of handguns. It also forbids assault weapons. If prohibition were the answer, no one would be asking the question.
The recent spate of killings gives a misleading impression. Since the peak years of the early 1990s, the number of murders in Chicago has fallen by more than half. In the first three months of this year, homicides were down by 1.1 percent. No one would describe the current murder rate as acceptable, but the city has made huge progress.
It has done so despite the alleged problem cited by Weis, which is the availability of guns, and particularly one type of gun. "There are just too many weapons here," he declared at a Sunday news conference. "Why in the world do we allow citizens to own assault rifles?"
Actually, in Chicago "we" don’t allow citizens to own assault rifles. Elsewhere they are allowed for the same reason other firearms are permitted. The gun Weis villainized is a type of semiautomatic that has a fearsome military appearance but is functionally identical to many legal sporting arms.
And its bark is worse than its bite. As of March 31, there had been 87 homicides in the city. When I asked the Chicago Police Department how many of the murders are known to have involved assault rifles, the answer came back: one.
As it happens, we already have ample experience with laws against these guns. From 1994 to 2004, their manufacture and sale were banned under federal law. Yet the number of murders committed with rifles and shotguns began falling in 1991, three years before the law was enacted.
It’s true that gun homicides also fell while the law was in effect. Does that prove the value of the ban? Not exactly, since stabbing deaths fell even faster, as did murders involving crowbars, baseball bats and other blunt objects. Obviously other factors were behind the improvement.
The irrelevance of the law was plain to see. In 2004, Tom Diaz, an official of the pro-gun control Violence Policy Center, said, "If the existing assault weapons ban expires, I personally do not believe it will make one whit of difference" in curbing gun violence.
No surprise there. Anyone with criminal intent had plenty of deadly options at hand. The so-called assault weapons, contrary to what you might assume, were no more powerful or lethal than other, unbanned guns. Not only that, but criminals, the people most likely to commit violent crimes, were completely unaffected by the ban — for the simple reason that they are not allowed to buy or own guns of any kind.
As Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck notes, most criminals arm themselves by stealing guns or buying guns stolen by someone else. So new restrictions don’t make much difference to them. The federal ban was a classic illustration of how gun control works. Law-abiding people who rarely misuse their guns were deprived of options. Ex-cons went on as before.
Why wouldn’t a gun ban dry up the supply of firearms available to criminals? Three reasons: There are more than two million guns in private hands. They have a very long useful life. And it doesn’t take many to supply the nation’s bad guys with all the ordnance they need.
Gun control hasn’t worked as a remedy for crime. So what makes anyone think the answer is more gun control?