Only in Washington would it be considered imperative to extend legislation precisely because it's been so ineffectual. Such is the logic behind a Democratic push to prevent the assault-weapons ban from expiring next year, and even to broaden it.
It was obvious at the time of the ban's passage in 1994 that it couldn't possibly have any effect on crime as advertised, which it hasn't. The ban nonetheless is such a nice-sounding idea -- who wouldn't want to ban "assault weapons"? -- that even President Bush has endorsed its reauthorization.
If the ban is indeed preserved and broadened, it will be just as worthless as the original version. By the reasoning of its supporters, that failure will, in turn, make necessary an even more sweeping ban.
Thus gun-controllers demonstrate the fine political art of how to win by repeatedly doing things that don't work. In the rest of the world, that fits the loose definition of insanity -- "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results" -- but in Washington, it defines success.
The assault-weapons ban was a product of the manufactured label "assault weapons." It's a wonder that other advocates haven't duplicated the experience by forging similar labels for things they want to ban. SUVs? Assault cars. Soft money? Assault contributions.
The term became popular just as a crack-induced urban crime wave was reaching its crest, conjuring images of gang members doing battle with AK-47s. The image was a boogeyman.
Criminologist Gary Kleck recounts that the head of the biggest gang detail in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s had never confiscated any assault weapons. A study of drive-by shootings in L.A. found that an assault weapon had figured in only one of 583 incidents.
Kleck's estimate is that less than 2 percent of guns used in crimes were assault weapons, and that assault weapons were used in one of 400 violent crimes overall. This made sense, since few street criminals would want to try to carry on their persons a heavy, conspicuous rifle.
When it came time for Congress to ban assault weapons, the difficulty was that no one knew exactly what they were. They were commonly taken to be semiautomatics that accept a large magazine and -- the crucial part -- have a "military-style" appearance.