End the Misleading Debate on Guns

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Gun-control advocates should fear the votes today in the Senate, but not for the reason that most people think.

Some claim that letting the ban on some semiautomatic weapons expire will cause a surge of police killings and a rise in gun crimes. But in fact, letting the law expire will show the uselessness of gun-control regulations. A year from now, it will be obvious to everyone that all the horror stories about banning what have been labeled “assault weapons” were wrong.

Today’s votes center on reining in reckless lawsuits against gun makers, and no one seems to doubt that the Senate will grant them some immunity. The vast majority of Americans understand that Ford Motor Co. or General Motors should not be liable if a speeding driver gets into an accident and kills a pedestrian. And Americans understand that similar suits now are being brought against gun makers. No protection is being granted for sales of defective products or criminal behavior by gun manufacturers. When even Democratic Congress members such as Charles Rangel from New York vote for the bill in the House, it is hard to claim that the bill is a product of the “gun lobby.”

Another question is whether the lawsuit bill will be loaded with amendments requiring more gun-control regulations. These “poison pills” may make it difficult to get the bill through a conference committee with the House. Last week, the Senate passed a provision on gun locks, and today more votes are scheduled, including whether to regulate gun shows and ban some types of ammunition.

One of the more contentious issues will be extending the ban on some semiautomatic guns. Seven states now ban certain types of semiautomatic guns, and the federal ban in effect since 1994 is scheduled to sunset this September. Yet, despite the heated rhetoric, there is not a single academic study showing that either state or federal bans have reduced violent crime. Even research funded by the Justice Department under the Clinton administration concluded merely that the ban’s “impact on gun violence has been uncertain.”

The federal assault weapons ban applied to semiautomatics that fire one bullet per pull of the trigger. Rebuilding semiautomatic weapons into machine guns is very difficult; completely different firing mechanisms are used. The term assault weapon simply describes cosmetic features of the gun, not the way the gun fires bullets.

Ironically, notorious “assault weapons,” such as the 223-caliber Bushmaster rifle used in the D.C. sniper killings, are not even allowed in most states for hunting deer or larger animals. The reason: It is such a low-powered rifle that it will too frequently wound rather than kill the deer.

The ban arbitrarily outlaws some guns based upon brand name or cosmetic features — such as whether a rifle could have a bayonet mount, a pistol grip, a folding stock, or a threaded muzzle. Not only could someone buy some other unbanned semiautomatic gun that fired the same bullets, at the same rapidity, and with the same destructive force — but also even the banned guns can be sold under a different name or after, say, the bayonet mount was removed.

Too often the debate misleads people about the guns being banned. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the obvious Democratic presidential nominee, supports extending the ban because he claims that “when I go out there and hunt, I’m going out there with a 12-gauge shotgun, not an assault weapon.” Yet, the ban has nothing to do with shooting birds with machine guns. The guns’ names or cosmetic features make them no less well-suited for hunting.

Proponents for keeping the semiautomatic “assault” gun ban argue that 10 of the 50 police officers shot to death annually from 1998 to 2001 were killed by these guns. But the Violence Policy Center, which put these numbers together, never examined whether the guns used to kill police possessed two or more of the features defining them as “assault weapons.” Rather, the guns were counted as assault weapons if it was possible that they had at least two of the banned features.

It is hard to convince some people that gun control doesn’t reduce crime, but the continuing extreme claims by gun-control advocates won’t be forgotten a year from now. Somehow the obvious failure of the semiautomatic gun ban will be a fitting epitaph for one of the gun-control movement’s hallmark pieces of legislation.

Burdening these needed legal reforms with regulations that cause only other problems accomplishes only one goal: the legislation will be defeated and the lawsuits seeking to eliminate guns will proceed.

John Lott [send him mail], a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of The Bias Against Guns (Regnery 2003).

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