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Commentary

Not Targeting “Assault Weapons”


     
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Slipping in the polls, Senator John Kerry deceitfully accuses President George Bush of not pushing for an extension of the 1994 federal ban on so-called “assault weapons,” which has just expired. Bush deceitfully responds that he supported the ban’s extension and would have signed it but for Congress’s failure to pass it. Both Kerry’s and Bush’s statements are half-truths calculated to mislead voters.

It has been clear for many months that Congress would not bring the extension of the “assault weapon” (AW) ban up for a vote. Neither Congress, the Democrats, nor Bush were willing to make this a major policy issue for the same two reasons. The first reason is purely political.

In the election two months after the AW ban was originally enacted in September of 1994, gun-owners were so successful in retaliating against its supporters (mostly Democrats) that the Republicans gained control of Congress for the first time in 50 years. Then in the 2000 election, Al Gore lost his own state, Tennessee, and had close contests in others, because gun-owners viewed the Democrats as anti-gun.

This year, both Democrats and Republicans, believing that swing voters will be especially important in November’s election, have avoided taking high-visibility stands on gun issues.

To avoid offending anti-gun voters, Bush and Kerry ritualistically proclaimed their support for extending the AW ban—but did so very softly to appeal to pro-gun voters, and knowing that the bill would never get out of the House of Representatives. Likewise John Kerry, who had an unbroken anti-gun record in 20 years in Congress, now bills himself as a hunter. (Ironically, the shotgun he brandished in recent campaign appearances would have been made illegal by hyper-technical amendments he had supported for the extension.)

The second reason for non-support of the extension of the ban is that there is no such thing as an assault weapon. This is why the courts have regularly held ”assault weapons” bans as unconstitutionally vague unless specific guns or features are named.

Anti-gun advocates have confessed that they deliberately used the term “assault weapon” to confuse people into thinking that semi-automatic civilian firearms are the same as assault rifles (i.e., machine gun-type weapons that are used by the military and have long been illegal to manufacture and sell to civilians). In fact, armies don’t use AWs because, being only civilian-type arms, they are far less lethal than actual assault rifles.

Indeed, although semi-automatic civilian guns generally look like military guns, they are far less deadly than even civilian hunting firearms. ”Assault weapons” fire “down-powered” cartridges such as the .223 caliber round, which in a semi-automatic weapon is considered too weak to be used even to hunt deer. Compare, for example, the results in two of the rare shootings that involve AWs. In 1989 a lunatic who opened fire on a Stockton, Calif., schoolyard with a semi-automatic shot 34 children and a teacher but killed only six. In contrast, in 1984 another lunatic opened fire in a San Ysidro, Calif., MacDonald’s restaurant using several weapons, but primarily an ordinary hunting shotgun. He killed 21 of the 31 people he shot.

Common sense tells us that the goal of gun control should be to keep the crazies from having guns of any kind, not to stop law-abiding, responsible adults from having down-powered rifles for hunting, target, self-defense, or otherwise legitimate purposes.

In urging enactment of the 1994 ban, anti-gun advocates falsely said AWs are especially desired by criminals and frequently used in crime. But in testimony before Congress, Handgun Control, Inc. had to admit, “We agree with the National Rifle Association that assault weapons right now play a small role in overall violent crime.”

In the wake of the 1994 ban, anti-gun groups falsely attributed the 1990s’ decline in murder and violent crime to that ban. In fact, the decline had actually started years before the ban could have had any effect. Successive studies by the National Institute of Justice have found no effect of the AW ban on crime. As Georgetown University anti-gun analyst Jens Ludwig says, the AW ban is “sort of like trying to reduce motor vehicle crashes by banning cars with flames painted on the side.”

In considering gun controls, we must remember what criminological research shows: Dangerous though guns are in the wrong hands, there is much more beneficial use of guns than wrongful use. Law-abiding, responsible adults use guns more than 2.5 million times each year to repel and defeat crime. And states that have enacted laws giving good people a permit to carry guns for protection have experienced, not an increase in criminal violence, but a decrease.

Criminals have no more desire to face an armed victim than victims have to face an armed criminal. To be sensible, gun laws must focus on disarming criminals and the insane, not ordinary law-abiding, responsible adults.


Don B. Kates is a criminologist and constitutional lawyer who is a Research Fellow with the Independent Institute in Oakland, California.






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