Piece by Piece


Gun-control advocates have moderated their approach. Guns don't kill people, they now agree. Only certain kinds of guns kill people.

The piecemeal attack on firearms has met with success in California, which banned "assault rifles" last spring, and in Maryland, where a ban on "Saturday Night Specials" took effect January 1. "They're playing off buzzwords and menacing looks," says Sanford Abrams, vice president of the Maryland Licensed Firearms Dealers Association. "They want to go little by little and get rid of everything."

The Maryland ban, the most restrictive of its kind in the nation, covers about 100 small, lightweight, low-caliber handguns that failed to meet with the approval of a state task force.

Gwen Fitzgerald, spokesperson for Handgun Control Inc., says the task force approved weapons that appeared to have "legitimate" sporting, self-defense, or law-enforcement uses. Yet all but 31 of the banned guns weren't even considered for exemption because their manufacturers, mostly small companies, did not submit applications to the panel.

Whatever the basis for the distinction between banned and approved guns, it's hard to argue that such classification will reduce crime. Even Fitzgerald acknowledges that "if a criminal's buying a handgun, he's going to choose from what's available."

Pressed on the question of whether the gun ban can be expected to reduce crime, Fitzgerald adds that the measure is also intended to protect gun users by taking dangerous, low-quality weapons off the market. "They change back and forth," Abrams notes. "First they say it'll stop crime; then when you ask how, they say it's a consumer-protection program."

Similarly, the connection between the California assault-rifle ban and crime prevention is tenuous at best. Unlike in Maryland, where hundreds of guns were presumed to be prohibited unless approved by the state, the California ban covers nine weapons specifically described in the law. The rifles were chosen on the basis of combat-oriented features such as bayonet mounts, folding stocks, and large magazines.

The impetus for the California law was the 1988 schoolyard massacre by Patrick Purdy, who used a Chinese version of the AK-47 to shoot a group of students. But Abrams points out that many semiautomatic hunting rifles can do a lot more damage than such military weapons, firing higher-caliber bullets with greater force at the same rate.

"Someone who is that sick and that crazy is certainly going to find another way," Fitzgerald admits. "He probably could have done a lot of damage with a hunting rifle." But she insists her group does not want to ban such weapons.

Abrams is understandably skeptical. "I don't believe it when they say, 'All we want to do is get rid of assault rifles,'" he says. "They won't stop until they've banned every type of weapon they can."