In 1991, after George Hennard shot 22 people to death at a
Luby's cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, Sarah Brady said the mass murder showed
the need for a federal ban on "assault weapons." Brady, the head of Handgun
Control Inc., wrote an op-ed piece in which she asked, "Is it going to take
a massacre in every congressional district for enough members to find the
backbone to put public safety ahead of the profits of the assault weapon
It was an odd connection to make, since the pistols Hennard had
used, a Glock 17 and a Ruger P89, were not covered by the legislation Brady
was demanding. A decade later, she and her organization, now called the
Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, are still trying to pass off non
sequiturs as common sense.
In a recent press release, Brady says the string of sniper
murders that have shocked and unnerved people in Maryland and Northern
Virginia demonstrate the wisdom of the "assault weapon" ban, which Congress
passed in 1994. Noting that the law is set to expire in two years, she
warns, "We do not want to put more military-style weapons capable of such
devastation -- and worse -- back on our streets."
There's an obvious problem with arguing that an existing law is
needed to prevent crimes like the sniper attacks when it has manifestly
failed to do so. But the weakness in Brady's reasoning goes deeper than
First of all, Brady misleads the public by stating that the
sniper may be using an "assault rifle," which is a gun designed for soldiers
that can be switched from semiautomatic (firing once per trigger pull) to
automatic (firing continuously). The legislation Brady wants renewed has
nothing to do with automatic weapons, a.k.a. machine guns, which have been
strictly controlled by the federal government since the 1930s.
Brady and her allies try to obscure this point by fostering
confusion between actual military weapons (such as assault rifles) and guns
that bear a cosmetic resemblance to them. The guns covered by the "assault
weapon" ban were singled out based primarily on their scary looks rather
than their capabilities.
Even if that were not the case, the law would be irrelevant to
the sniper murders, every one of which has involved a single shot fired from
a distance. Depending upon the shooter's skill, any rifle is "capable of
Hence Brady's logic suggests that what we really need is a ban
on rifles. And we already know how she feels about handguns.
If the "assault weapon" angle on the sniper murders is
counterintuitive (to put it kindly), Brady's other recommendation -- a
national "ballistic fingerprint" system -- seems more plausible. The idea
has enough superficial appeal that the Bush administration, after initially
expressing skepticism, has agreed to study it.
Under this scheme, manufacturers would test-fire every new gun
and supply the government with the bullet and shell casing, the markings
from which would be entered into a database. If the gun were ever used in a
crime, police could match a bullet or shell casing found at the scene to the
weapon's serial number and original purchaser.
The weaknesses in such a system are manifold. Matching ballistic
markings is an uncertain art with no objective threshold for verifying that
two bullets came from the same gun. As with ordinary fingerprints, the
judgment of an examiner may be especially iffy when only fragments are
recovered or when he knows what the result is supposed to be.
Compounding this problem, a gun's "fingerprint" changes with
use, and it can be deliberately altered by switching parts or scraping the
inside of the barrel. Criminals who don't know how to doctor their weapons
can simply use one of the 200 million or so guns already in circulation. And
even if they use a gun whose signature is on file, they can escape detection
if they steal it or buy it from a source other than a gun store, which is
what they usually do anyway.
Supporters of a national gun database concede these points but
argue that it still might help to solve some crimes. The only downside, they
say, is that such a system would upset gun owners, who see it as firearm
registration in disguise, a prelude to confiscation.
Ballistic fingerprint enthusiasts dismiss this concern as
groundless -- which shows they have not been listening very closely to
people like Sarah Brady.