Debate won't trail off with assault-gun ban
Despite popularity, law expiring amid questions about its effectiveness
11:23 PM CDT on Friday, September 10, 2004
By SILLA BRUSH / The Dallas Morning News
The decade-old ban on assault weapons is scheduled to expire Monday, but the controversy over the law's effectiveness is sure to continue.
The ban will end despite strong popular support in Texas and across the country, and even as supporters and opponents of the ban argue about what the law accomplished.
But that debate won't happen on the floors of Congress. Recent efforts to renew the 1994 ban have failed with congressional leaders, who say there are not enough votes behind it as they prepare to tackle issues such as overhauling the U.S. intelligence system.
President Bush, who said during the 2000 campaign that he backed the renewal of the assault weapon ban, hasn't pushed lawmakers to extend the law.
Now, on the eve of its expiration, some aren't sure its passing will mean much as they point back to the law's original loopholes resulting from a tooth-and-nail compromise 10 years ago.
"I don't think there is going to be a line at the door the morning after the ban goes away for people wanting to buy guns," said Chuck Payne, store manager at Ray's Sporting Goods in Dallas.
Opponents of the ban, led by the National Rifle Association, say the law had almost no effect on reducing crime, stating that assault weapons are rarely used in crimes in the United States.
"It is a restriction on a constitutional right that has proven to be ineffective," said Chris Cox, chief lobbyist for the NRA.
On the opposite side, gun control advocates say AK-47s will flood the streets if the ban isn't reauthorized and large-capacity magazines will make already potent guns even more powerful and deadly.
"We'd like to see an even stronger ban on assault weapons, but we certainly don't want to roll the laws back to the day when these guns were readily available," said Michael Barnes, head of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the largest gun control advocacy group in the country.
Origin of ban
The assault-weapons ban was part of President Clinton's crime initiative in the early and mid-1990s after a spate of violent crimes and a rise in gang violence garnered national attention.
The 1994 law placed a 10-year ban on the "manufacture, transfer, and possession" of 19 semiautomatic firearms listed as assault weapons because of their military-style features like flash hiders, folding rifle stocks and threading to add silencers. Large capacity magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition also were banned.
The Brady Campaign says the number of assault weapons traced to crime has dropped by two-thirds since the law was enacted, but experts point to at least three problems with the law to suggest its effects are modest at best:
•Gun manufacturers made copycat guns that were just different enough from the prohibited firearms to fall outside the letter of the law. The Violence Policy Center, a gun control advocacy group, estimates that about 1 million "post-ban" guns have been manufactured, including Uzis and AK-47s.
•The law grandfathered in the estimated 1.5 million semiautomatic guns and the 25 million magazines circulating in 1994.
•The law prohibited too specific a list of guns and regulated looks not function.
These problems have made experts wary of efforts to regulate assault weapons.
"To me this just looks like the politicians playing games," said Jim Jacobs, law professor at New York University. "I don't think it was a serious crime control initiative when it was passed, and I don't see how it could have had any impact on crime, but it did have a lot of political salience and could allow politicians to thump their chests on either side."
Some experts say the low percentage of gun violence that can be attributed to assault weapons suggests the law could never have had a large effect.
"Now 10 years later [with] more and more copycat versions out there, do I expect there to be a notable increase in gun violence when the ban expires? I'd say no," said Daniel Webster, professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.
But even if gun violence doesn't skyrocket after the law expires, one central concern is that large capacity magazines will no longer be regulated.
A 2004 study conducted for the National Institute of Justice, a research arm of the Justice Department, said any effect the ban had on reducing crimes committed with assault weapons was offset by more criminals using large capacity magazines.
"Because the ban has not yet reduced the use of large capacity magazines in crime, we cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation's recent drop in gun violence," the report concludes.
However, in the divisive politics of gun control this conclusion also has naysayers.
Gary Kleck, a Florida State University professor, said regulating magazines wouldn't significantly reduce the number of victims of gun violence.
"I don't know of any incidents when it would have made a difference to have a magazine of 10 rounds or a larger one," he said. "The vast majority of homicides involve small numbers of victims and small numbers of rounds."
Mr. Payne, the Dallas gun shop manager, said the price for semiautomatic weapons and magazines would probably drop by half, but he agrees that the ban didn't deter crime.
"Some of the pre-ban Colt AR-15s people are selling on the used secondary market for $1,500. They will go down to the price of a used AR-15 which is about $800," he said. "The crooks have the high capacity magazines. They can buy these high capacity magazines. They have thousands of dollars to pay."
Gun control advocates have been on the defensive in the last three years as opponents tout its inconclusive effects and Mr. Bush has refrained from asking for its renewal.
In March, the Senate voted 52-47 to renew the ban, but the vote went nowhere after the bill it was part of was dashed. And now local advocates of the ban like Marsha McCartney say the biggest challenges they face are lobbying lawmakers and just making people aware that the law will expire.
"Common everyday people, whether they are hunters or not, cannot believe that a law like this would sunset," said Ms. McCartney, head of the Dallas chapter of the Million Mom March, which supports the ban.
Polls regularly show more than two-thirds of Americans support the ban. There is strong support even in states like Texas, where 53 percent of residents own guns. The Summer 2004 Texas Poll released Friday shows 80 percent of Texans favor the ban's renewal.
Also supporting the ban are several law enforcement organizations, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the Fraternal Order of Police.
And although gun control advocates are united in their efforts to renew the ban, they realize that is unlikely and may hurt efforts to pass other gun control laws in the future.
"Assault weapons are important, people shouldn't have them, but what my biggest fear is that gun policy is just going to be left in the dust after an assault weapons defeat," Dr. Webster said.