An assault on common sense

Posted: May 19, 2003 12:00 AM

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.

Congress cut through the amorphousness by arbitrarily picking 19 nasty-looking models to ban. As Kleck writes, "It is hard to imagine how the federal assault-weapons ban could even hypothetically prevent a death or injury by banning further sales and manufacture of just 19 models of semiautomatic guns that accounted for less than 1.4 percent of guns used by criminals and that possessed no violence-relevant attributes to distinguish them from over 380 semiautomatic models not banned."

Congress also enumerated characteristics, including bayonet mounts and pistol grips, that would be verboten on certain semiautomatics. None of these characteristics have anything to do with the lethality of the guns. And if you think there is danger of assault-weapons-armed criminals charging with their bayonets fixed, you have probably seen "Lethal Weapon 4" one too many times.

An official of the pro-gun-control Violence Policy Center recently complained that "the firearms industry has been very successful at evading the ban." It, however, would be almost impossible not to evade the ban, given its focus on meaningless cosmetics.

If gun-controllers were to be consistent, they would drop the fuzzy "assault weapons" label and seek to ban all semiautomatic longarms. This would constitute a clean category of guns for prohibition. It also would require honesty about the real target of the ban: not street criminals, but people who own such guns to hunt and protect their homes.

That would be politically fatal. So gun-control forces try to extend the assault-weapons ban instead, a salami-slice strategy toward an ultimate, much broader gun prohibition. A whiff of their dishonesty can be detected in the senselessness of their argumentation: If the ban hasn't worked, why end it now?