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Weapons Ban Purely Cosmetic

By Stephen Cathers

for the USC Daily Trojan

One of the more important Senate votes of the year took place this month. John Kerry even made it back to the Senate to cast his first vote all year.

The issue: extending the 10-year-old ban on assault weapons by attaching it as an amendment to a bill protecting gun manufacturers from frivolous lawsuits. Kerry and others framed it as a ban on dangerous military-style weapons that only criminals would use. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein called it an issue "as to whether the American people want AK47s, street sweepers and Uzis sold once again." With this kind of rhetoric, it's easy to misunderstand what an assault weapon actually is.

Ban proponents and the media certainly won't give people a straight definition of what they mean by assault weapons. Judging by the AK47 and Uzi references, it's easy to think that machine guns are being banned.

Many news reports fail to even mention that the guns in question are semiautomatic, not automatic. One gets the impression that the NRA is fighting for the right to go hunting with machine guns. Even "The Simpsons" lampooned the ban's opponents, with Lenny (speaking at an NRA meeting) claiming that assault weapons are "manufactured for a reason: to take out today's modern super animals."

Given these impressions, it's interesting to find out what's actually banned.

The law classifies assault weapons as "a semiautomatic rifle that has an ability to accept a detachable magazine and has at least two of: (i) a folding or telescoping stock; (ii) a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon; (iii) a bayonet mount; (iv) a flash suppressor or threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor; and (v) a grenade launcher." Several types of pistols and shotguns are also banned, along with magazines with more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

Notice that automatic weapons are not covered, because they've been strictly regulated by the federal government since 1934. Basically, the assault weapons ban bans guns that look scary. Assault weapons are actually only semiautomatic pistols, rifles and shotguns that are functionally exactly the same as other semiautomatics, which fire one shot per pull of the trigger.

The guns shoot the same type of ammunition with the same power as traditional guns. For instance, the banned TEC 9 uses 9mm ammo, which is also used in many legal pistols, such as the Glock 17. Gun-control advocates have decried manufacturers for "violating the spirit of the law" by making "slight cosmetic changes" to guns in order to escape the ban.

What makes this claim so ironic is that the ban was always based on cosmetic features. These cosmetic features make no functional difference. Indeed, it's hard to understand why some of them were included at all.

Remember the last crime committed with a bayonet? Neither do I.

You might think that a flash suppressor hides where a shot comes from, but it actually only hides the temporarily blinding flash from the person firing the gun. Gun-control advocates claim that features such as folding stocks and pistol grips make it easier to spray bullets indiscriminately, causing greater casualties and damage. Of course, assault weapons fire no faster than any other semiautomatic weapons. Nor does the evidence bear out claims that assault weapons lead to increased damage in crimes. During the Clinton administration, the Justice Department study "Impacts of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban: 1994-1996" found that "the ban did not produce declines in the average number of victims per incident of gun murder or gun murder victims with multiple wounds."

Interestingly, ban proponents are quite short on evidence that the ban has fulfilled its ostensible purpose: reducing crime. While Sen. Feinstein trumpets the statistic that assault weapons now represent 1.22 percent of all recovered crime guns (down from 3.57 percent in 1995), she gives no evidence that this has actually led to a decrease in crime. Tom Diaz, of the pro-gun-control Violence Policy Center, even said, "If the existing assault weapons ban expires, I personally do not believe it will make one whit of difference one way or another ... reducing death and injury." As long as the ban has failed to reduce crime, it seems rather odd to rejoice that the look of the weapons used for crimes has changed.

Perhaps the most powerful claim made by ban proponents is that one of five cops killed between 1998 and 2001 fell victim to an assault weapon. Yet the VPC, which came up with this statistic, inflates these numbers by neglecting to use the definition of assault weapon defined in federal law. Nor does it show that these murders were because of any special properties of assault weapons.

For instance, according to its Web site, one of the murders involved a policeman who was shot multiple times from behind. Another involved a policeman ambushed by a subject who was hiding behind a door. You have to wonder what difference it would have made if the murderers had used a more traditional gun.

So if assault weapons are no more dangerous than other legal guns, why do gun control groups make such a fuss about them? Because, with the collaboration of a media that overwhelmingly favors gun control, they're able to play on public confusion over what assault weapons really are. Indeed, in 1988, the VPC's Josh Sugarmann wrote, "The weapons' menacing looks, coupled with the public's confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semiautomatic assault weapons - anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun - can only increase that chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons."

One might wonder why citizens should care about merely cosmetic bans that do little to actual gun effectiveness. But the government ought to have a compelling reason before it restricts the freedoms of anyone. The burden of proof ought not be on those defending the constitutional right to bear arms but rather on those seeking to abridge it. Arbitrary bans erode respect for Americans' fundamental rights. As Jacob Sullum wrote in the magazine Reason, "The 'assault weapon' ban sets a dangerous precedent precisely because the justification for it is so weak. It suggests that you don't need a good reason to limit the right to keep and bear arms, and it invites further restrictions down the road. As far as the gun banners are concerned, that is the whole point."

The Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, who's pro-gun control, admitted that the ban's "only real justification is not to reduce crime but to desensitize the public to the regulation of weapons in preparation for their ultimate confiscation." The ban erodes respect for the right of the people to keep and bear arms.

The assault ban, while little more than symbolic, does have political effects. It allows gun control advocates to portray themselves as favoring reasonable restrictions while condemning the NRA and others who fight arbitrary restrictions as "gun nuts" who reject even "moderate, rational" measures.

The VPC study "Assault Weapons & Accessories in America" claimed the ban would "damage America's gun lobby, but strengthen the handgun restriction lobby." Moreover, it moves the debate away from the Second Amendment and its protection of the right to keep and bear arms.

If gun-control supporters can create a debate where gun owners must justify the right to own a gun solely by its utility in hunting and target shooting, they'll have won the ideological war. The tyranny of complete gun confiscation won't be far behind.

Ultimately, the bill which contained the renewal of the assault ban was voted down, and the ban will expire this September.

Expect for Kerry and his allies to make an issue of this in the coming election. But politicians such as Kerry, who claim to believe in Second Amendment rights, ought to reject this cynical wedge issue and protect Americans' freedoms.

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