Jacob Sullum

The VPC continues to capitalize on this confusion. "Civilian assault weapons," it says, "are semiautomatic versions of military weapons designed to rapidly lay down a wide field of fire often called 'hosing down' an area." Contrary to the impression left by that ambiguous statement, so-called assault weapons fire once per trigger pull, like any other semiautomatic.

Functionality aside, are "assault weapons" especially popular with criminals? Police statistics from across the country indicate that they represent 2 percent to 3 percent of guns used in crimes.

To get around the fact that "assault weapons" are rarely used by criminals, the VPC is now claiming that from 1998 through 2001 "one in five law enforcement officers slain in the line of duty was killed with an assault weapon." This estimate is padded by the inclusion of weapons that Congress does not define as "assault weapons" but that the VPC does. In any case, it indicates that the vast majority of cop killers use guns that no one considers to be "assault weapons."

Notice, too, that banning guns does not prevent them from being used in crimes, which makes you wonder what good even an "improved" ban could be expected to accomplish. Even if cop killers were fond of "assault weapons" and if passing a law could magically eliminate them, it's absurd to imagine that violent criminals could not find adequate substitutes.

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.

In 1996, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, who favors banning gun possession by civilians, conceded that the arguments advanced by supporters of the "assault weapon" ban were "laughable." The "only real justification" for the law, he said, "is not to reduce crime but to desensitize the public to the regulation of weapons in preparation for their ultimate confiscation."

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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