Assaulting the Ban

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With the first sniper trial of John Muhammad getting started, the one-year anniversary recalls the horrors and fear. There are also legislative attempts underway to ensure that it never happens again. Two Democratic presidential candidates Congressmen Richard Gephardt (D-MO) and Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) have used the anniversary to introduce legislation demanding that the federal assault weapons ban be renewed and expanded before it expires next year. Lawmakers in Maryland are now requesting that over 40 different guns be added to the list of banned assault weapons. Legislators in other states are following suit.

In the gun control debate, labels are often misleading: The “assault weapon ban” is no different, conjuring up images of machine guns, a view encouraged by the news media, which typically show machine guns in their stories on the ban. Yet, the 1994 federal assault weapon ban had nothing to do with machine guns, only semi-automatics that fire one bullet per pull of the trigger. Rebuilding semi-automatic weapons into machine guns is very difficult, as completely different firing mechanisms are used. It is easier to replace the entire gun than to re-engineer a semi-automatic gun.

Functionally the banned guns are the same as other non-banned semi-automatic guns, firing the exact same bullets with the same rapidity and producing the exact same damage. The ban arbitrarily outlaws some guns based upon their name or cosmetic features, such as whether the gun could have a bayonet attached.

The media’s focus now is on the so-called sniper rifle. Yet, the 223-caliber Bushmaster rifle used in the sniper killings was neither a sniper rifle nor an “assault weapon.” In fact, it is such a low powered rifle that in most states it is illegal to use it for even deer hunting precisely because of its low power, too frequently wounding and not killing deer.

Why anyone would think that assault weapon bans would reduce crime is a mystery. In theory, if so-called “assault weapons” are preferred by criminals to commit crime but are seldom used by citizens to stop crime, banning the whole class could reduce crime. But since most guns are semi-automatic, such a ban would cover most guns. However, banning a few semi-automatic guns might very well only change the brand of gun that criminals use.

The law never had much of an effect. Despite simultaneously praising the ban as being responsible for the drop in violent crime during the 1990s, President Clinton, who signed the “assault weapon ban” into law, complained in 1998 how easy it had been for gun manufacturers to continue selling the banned guns simply by changing the guns’ names or by making the necessary cosmetic changes.

Ironically, the banned guns were seldom used in crime to begin with. A 1995 study of the early 1990s by the Clinton administration showed that fewer than 1% of state and federal inmates carried a “military-type” semi-automatic guns (a much broader set of guns than those banned by the law) when they committed a crime. A 1997 survey showed no reduction in this type of crime gun after the ban.

Only two studies have been conducted of the federal law’s impact on crime, one of which also examined the state assault weapons laws. One study was funded by the Clinton administration and examined just the first year the law was in effect. It concluded that, “the ban’s short-term impact on gun violence has been uncertain.”

The second study is found in my book The Bias Against Guns. It examines the first four years of the federal law as well as the different state assault weapon bans. Even after accounting for law enforcement, demographics, poverty and other factors that affect crime, the laws did not reduce any type of violent crime. In fact, overall violent crime actually rose slightly by 1.5 percent, but the impact was not statistically significant. The somewhat larger increase in murder rates was significant.

The data from the five states with assault weapons bans show no overall benefit, with seemingly random results: violent crime rose in California and Hawaii, remained unchanged in Massachusetts, and fell Maryland and New Jersey.

The only clear result of the bans was to consistently reduce the number of gun shows by about 25 percent. Features such as bayonets mounts on guns may not mean much to criminals, but gun collectors sure seem to like them.

The purpose of limiting a law to a set period is presumably to test it, to see if it lives up to its promises. The bans have now been in effect for almost a decade, without any evidence of any benefits.

Fueled by false images of machine guns and sniper rifles, the debate next year is likely to be very emotional. Let’s hope that we will look at what these laws actually do.

John Lott [send him mail], a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of the newly released The Bias Against Guns, which examines the evidence on multiple victim killings.

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