Clock ticking on assault gun ban
Politics, flaws put extension in doubt
By RICK MONTGOMERY
The Kansas City Star
In a little less than five months, the 1994 federal ban on assault weapons will expire unless Washington lawmakers act to extend it.
But you still can walk up to an Overland Park counter and slap down $360 for a Kel-Tec SUB 2000 Carbine, ban or no ban.
With the look of something that Keanu Reeves might pack beneath his trench coat in the Matrix movies, “this nifty little 9 mm semi-auto” folds in half to an “easily-concealed 16.1 inches,” one Web site touts.
Assault weapon or not? Advocates on all sides of the issue confess to being confused. To many, the correct answer darts like a moving target somewhere between “depends on how it's used” and “whatever the law says.”
Such questions have compelled the most ardent gun-control groups to argue against extending the assault weapons ban — at least in its present form.
“The public believes there is an assault weapons ban when there isn't,” said Kristen Rand, legislative director for the Washington-based Violence Policy Center. “You can't argue with a straight face that the ban has been effective.”
On her latter point, gun-rights advocates could not agree more. They note that the law President Clinton signed — backed by public support reaching as high as 78 percent — did nothing to prevent the Columbine High School massacre. It occurred nearly five years after Congress passed the ban.
With the law due to expire Sept. 13, just seven weeks before the general elections, politicians and special interests are poised for a wedge-issue war.
Sen. John Kerry in March returned to Washington during the thick of the Democratic presidential primary season to cast his first Senate vote of the year, favoring extension of the ban.
President Bush also supports extending the weapons ban. But his administration has done little to press the issue with congressional Republicans, not to mention many Democrats, who are all too familiar with the firepower of the gun lobby in an election year.
“Barring events unforeseen, the votes just aren't there in the House of Representatives to extend the law,” said Lawrence Keane, a senior vice president at the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which has fought the ban from the beginning. “The bill is going to sunset. That's very clear.”
Less clear in the minds of legal experts, political observers and gun groups is whether anything will, or should, replace the ban.
Shortly after dusk on Nov. 10, 1998 in St. Joseph, Willam Eldon Lattin Jr. started firing.
Armed with a MAK-90 rifle and enough high-capacity clips in a knapsack to shoot 300 rounds, Lattin chose the intersection of Colhoun and 22nd streets as his personal combat zone. The unemployed cop-hater with a dozen arrests to his name was 33 and had just shaved his head.
He opened fire outside the Calvary Baptist Church, killing St. Joseph Officer Bradley T. Arn in a passing patrol car. Lattin wounded three other persons before a policeman shot and killed him.
Some would the call the semiautomatic MAK-90 an assault weapon — military-style and lightweight with a nylon skeleton stock, a pistol grip for easy firing.
“Personally, I'm not a strong gun-control advocate … but I have a real difficult time associating firearms like that with a sporting weapon,” Mike Hirter, St. Joseph chief of police, said in a recent interview.
Lattin's weapon fed on detachable magazines holding as many as 30 cartridges. The assailant carried 10 of these magazines, taped in pairs for quicker reloading.
His gun, however, was legally imported from China, despite the bans written into the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The manufacturer had incorporated enough revisions into the banned AK-47 military assault rifle to ship a MAK-90 that satisfied U.S. regulators.
First, it was no machine gun. As far back as the 1930s, the United States has placed severe restrictions on civilian ownership of fully automatic weapons capable of spraying ammunition with one pull of the trigger. And sales of new automatic weapons were prohibited in the 1980s.
Lattin's rifle fired the same way as all semiautomatic guns, hunting, assault or otherwise. One bullet at a time.
“The 1994 law never had anything to do with machine guns,” said John Lott of the American Enterprise Institute.
The assault weapons act did ban 19 specific models outright, including the semiautomatic Uzi and the TEC-9 pistol. It also banned the manufacture or importing of firearms that fed from detachable magazines and featured at least two of the following:
• Pistol grip “that protrudes conspicuously” from rifle frames;
• Collapsible rifle stock, allowing the weapon to be easily concealed;
• Bayonet mount;
• Shroud over the end of a barrel, or a “flash suppressor” designed to reduce the flare from a gunshot, or a threaded barrel for attaching a suppressor;
• Grenade launcher.
The law also prohibited “large-capacity ammunition feeding devices.” Magazines containing more than 10 rounds of ammunition could not be manufactured.
Magazines and semiautomatic weapons made before the ban, however, were grandfathered . This allowed owners to keep and trade pre-ban assault weapons even if they sported two or more of the specified features.
As for new guns, manufacturers quickly learned to design around the ban.The outlawed TEC-9 semiautomatic pistol evolved to the TEC-9/AB-10, with AB meaning “after ban.” Gone was the threaded barrel. A pre-ban variation called the TEC-DC9, so named to meet firearm restrictions in Washington, proved versatile and lethal enough to be used in the 1999 Columbine shootings in Colorado.
Gun makers have produced more than 100 other versions of the TEC-9, according to the Justice Department.
In October 2002, a pair of snipers in the Washington area used a Bushmaster XM15 rifle to kill 10 persons. The manufacturer billed the model as a “post-ban carbine,” perfectly legal with a pistol grip but with none of the other specified features of an assault weapon.
Many long-barrel manufacturers readily did away with bayonet lugs and folding shoulder stocks to keep the popular pistol grips, said Robert Mosley, director of industry operations for the Kansas City field division of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Flash suppressors gave way to similar-looking “muzzle brakes,” designed to steady a long barrel from recoil.
“Something on a weapon can look similar in profile,” said Mosley, “but it's either a violation or it's not.” A semiautomatic firearm could be made to look as scary as anything hoisted by Rambo, yet it still passes federal muster, he said: “At that point it's just a matter of cosmetics.”
Ballistics ‘the same'
The gun lobby argues that the assault weapons ban always has been a matter of cosmetics.
“It was based on how bad the guns looked, not on how they functioned,” said Chris Cox, chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association. “They fire no faster, they don't make a bigger hole, and the ballistics are the same as in legal guns.”
In fact, some enthusiasts are drawn to certain assault gun features just because the government has declared them taboo, said Keane:
“If the government suddenly said we can't have certain sporty cars because they look too fast to drive, consumers who want those features would buy sports cars like never before.”
Critics contend that pistol grips on a rifle help the shooter squeeze a trigger at a quick rate from the hip. High-capacity magazines cut down on reloading.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence supports extending the present ban, which it says helped to reduce the frequency of assault weapons used in crimes. Such weapons, by some definitions, accounted for 8 percent of all guns used in crimes in 1993 and, according to the Brady group, they dropped to about 3 percent of all crime guns used in 1996.
Why extend the law instead of making it stronger, as other gun-control groups suggest?
The Violence Policy Center, for example, points to the California law banning magazine-fed weapons with just one of the assault-style characteristics — not two, as outlined in the federal law. “You've got to get pistol grips off those rifles,” said the center's Rand. “That's the characteristic that makes a rifle a combat weapon.”
Rob Wilcox of the Brady Campaign said, however, that his group would settle on extending a weak ban.
“Don't get me wrong — we'd love to see the law strengthened,” he said. “But I'd also love to see Congress pass an act giving me a new Mercedes. It isn't going to happen. (Congress) is a tough nut to crack on this issue.”
The Senate in March narrowly approved an amendment extending the law, but the measure failed when attached to a bill that sought to provide civil immunity to gun dealers and manufacturers.
Fearing for their rights
At the Bullet Hole firing range and gun store in Overland Park, salesman Jim Dodd demonstrated how the Kel-Tec SUB 2000 Carbine folds in half.
The hinge is in front of the trigger housing, not behind it, technically making this feature different from what the government describes as “a folding or telescopic stock.” Buyers like being able to transport or to store the gun in small places.
Dodd snapped the weapon back together.
“The styling doesn't do anything for me, but they work,” he said, aiming the rifle at an imaginary target. “Pop, pop, pop.”
Dodd and manager Jeff Newmann, along with the collectors, retirees, young women and police officers hanging out at the shop this warm afternoon, shared a certainty that efforts to ban assault weapons were but one step toward taking away all guns. They ask: Why not crack down harder on criminals than on law-abiding citizens exercising their Second Amendment rights?
But in his office at the St. Joseph Police Department, Hirter remembered Bradley Arn, the father of young twin girls who was killed by a wannabe commando.
Arn was among more than 200 law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty between 1998 and 2001. Nearly 20 percent died from shots fired from military-style weapons, FBI data show.
If someone could craft a law that would spare the Arns of tomorrow, said his chief, “I'd campaign 24/7 to get it passed.”
To reach Rick Montgomery,
national correspondent, call
(816) 234-4410 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
My email to the author:
Greetings. Nicely written article, I’m sure you’ll get plenty of bitching from both sides on it, which only means it was pretty fairly balanced. Next time I see Mike Hirter I’ll ask him if he would have felt better if officer Arn had been run over by an SUV instead of shot with a gun. After all, there’s no real sporting purpose for one of those big Humvees is there? I guess alot people buy them because they want one, and because its America and they CAN buy one. Anyway, that’s how I feel about my Kalashnikovs—I had no desire for an AK47 type rifle until the government said I couldn’t have one, yet failed to prevent me from legally owning and shooting one. Now I have three, and boy are they fun to poke holes in paper with! Once you tell an American they can’t get something anymore, they’ll try to get ahold of it more than ever before—any DEA agent can tell you all about that. In any case it was a well done piece, especially for the KC Star.
--Michael P. Branson, Attorney at Law
Ok, time for bed, but first one more email. Man I'm a dick when its past midnight:
I have one more quick comment on your gun ban article. One of the statistics you cited is fundamentally flawed. You state near the end of the article, “Arn was among more than 200 law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty between 1998 and 2001. Nearly 20 percent died from shots fired from military-style weapons, FBI data show.”
Actually, that statistic has been proven to be patently false. When the Violence Policy Center came up with that statistic they made two glaring analytical errors.
First, in cases where an officer was shot dead but a murder weapon type was not identified, the VPC assumed, in cases involving certain common calibers, that the weapon used was a “military style” weapon. For example, an officer shot with a .223 Remington cartridge would be assumed to have been the victim of a “military style” weapon such as the Colt AR15 when no firearm was identified in the Federal Crime Statistics. However, there are also many other rifles in the same caliber, even including “youth model” guns marketed towards children that have no magazine at all, but fire only a single shot before needing to be manually reloaded. The number of these other, sporting firearms in caliber .223 is vastly greater than the number of “evil black rifles”, yet since the actual murder weapons used were unfortunately not identified by the FBI, the VPC lumped the unidentified weapons’ tally into the “military style” category. .223 is a good example, but it is only one caliber example; there are many other calibers in which this statistical “technique” was utilized.
The second error regards magazine capacity. The VPC considers any firearm containing one of the “evil features” from 18 USC 921 (the assault weapons ban) to be an assault weapon. Therefore, any gun holding more than ten rounds in its magazine is an assault weapon for the purposes of their statistical analysis. The problem with this is that nearly ALL police officers nationwide are issued sidearms with restricted, law-enforcement-only high capacity magazines. The rough stats from the Federal Crime Statstics show that nearly 15% of all officers killed in the line of duty are shot with their own sidearms (thus the hue and cry for high-tech “smart guns” which can only be fired by an authorized user). To the VPC, then, the officers killed by their own handguns are victims of assault weapon violence, of “military style” weapons. This helps inflate their figures by a healthy 15%, but is hardly sound statistical analysis.
The Violence Policy Center is notorious for twisting statistics to suit their political needs. Some time ago they had to retract their numbers on children killed by guns. Their definition of “child” for the purposes of the study had been any minor under 20 years old. Airborne Rangers and Marines dying in Iraq and Afghanistan were therefore “American child victims of gun violence”, though they died half a world away, often with machineguns in their hands supplied by the federal government. Most embarrassing for the VPC.
I only bring all this up because despite being so cynical and inundated with information, some people still believe what they read in the papers. In the future you might want to check on the veracity of statistics before you publish them, since people will read what you write and believe what you say. The weapon you wield is more powerful than any carbine or shotgun—use it carefully.
SIR, that is so well done, bravo! also this looks Damn good--Michael P. Branson, Attorney at Law. give em hell bud. Ronald
Once again you are the only
j/k about the shyster/ambulance chaser, I know you still need a bit of time before you get qualified as either ;)
Vehicular manslaughter carries a very weak penalty as opposed to murder by a firearm. Those SUV's are very scary and we should lobby to ban them. Just my two cents.
Abortion Statistic: From 1973–2003 44,670,812 abortions were performed in the United States.
No "EVIL BLACK RIFLES" here!
That's exactly right! lol
Whoa! I'd post more, but an ambulance just went by, gotta go!
Seeing that article on the front page just reminded me why I don't subscribe to the Kansas City Red-Star. I'd just as soon read The Daily Worker, etc. But I agree, it actually was fairly balanced compared to what I've seen from USSA Today & the St Louis Post-October Revolution.
I think the article was still leaning towards gun control, since they put the quotes from the sad cop at the end so everyone will remember it. Making "assault" type weapon owners seem like crazy ass militant Al Qaedas with the "wannabe commando" line.So good going off on them Duke Nukem.
You forget got to sign off with "Molon Labe"; of course, that would assume that the paper would have anyone working there that might be curious enough to determine the meaning of those words - the words they don't recognize probably come in as noise.