As I write, the standoff between federal agents and Branch Davidians near Waco, Texas, continues. However it is ultimately resolved, the episode will be remembered as a law-enforcement disaster.
Critics of the BATF operation have cited various tactical errors. But the root of the fiasco was strategic: the premise that controlling certain weapons is the key to preventing bloodshed. In this case, the truth was just the opposite. The Waco tragedy has predictably elicited calls for stricter gun control, especially bans on so-called assault weapons. Instead, it should prompt policy makers to reconsider the mindless hunt for evil guns.
Press coverage of the Waco standoff showed how ignorance and misinformation feed the fears that drive gun control. The New York Times originally reported that David Koresh and his followers were armed with machine guns, which is why the BATF went after them in the first place. Later the Times backed off from that assertion, acknowledging that many of the guns were legal semi-automatics, although "at least one" was not. A subsequent interview with a Branch Davidian who is familiar with the collection of weapons cast doubt even on that modest claim.
As of this writing, it's not clear that the Davidians have any machine guns at all. The Times reported that the shootout lasted 45 minutes, during which "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of rounds were fired. Ten people armed with semi-automatic guns (there were more than 90 adults in the compound) could readily account for that rate of fire.
But if it turns out that all of the guns were legal, that will only be seen as evidence of the need for broader bans. "People are so anesthetized to violence today, they never look at the root cause: the ease of getting guns," Rep. Glen Maxey (D–Tex.), who backs a federal ban on "assault weapons," told USA Today. "When something like Waco happens, it puts a different spin on it."
Shortly after the Waco shootout, New Jersey's "assault weapon" law, the strictest in the nation, survived a repeal effort. Defecting Republicans in the state Senate cited overwhelming public support for the ban, which covers more than 60 models and has turned some 200,000 residents into criminals. "Assault weapons" are so widely reviled that polls find most American gun owners agree they should be illegal.
But as gun-control scholars such as Gary Kleck and David Kopel have noted, "assault weapons" are simply a bogeyman created by the anti-gun lobby. The term is a neologism with no formal definition and no meaning within the firearms industry. It can apply not only to semi-automatic versions of military guns but also to any rifle or handgun with a "military-style" appearance. In practice, Kopel writes in Policy Review, "the legislative definition of assault weapon amounts to 'the largest number of guns that a given legislature can be convinced to ban.'"
As The New York Times coverage illustrates, journalists and the general public are often confused about the distinction between automatic weapons (machine guns), which fire steadily as long as the trigger is pressed, and semi-automatic weapons, which fire once per trigger pull. Many people seem to be under the impression that "assault weapons" are machine guns.
But there is actually little functional difference between firearms banned as "assault weapons" and other semi-automatic guns. They fire the same bullets at the same rate. "Assault weapons" may have folding stocks, bayonet attachments, or larger magazines, but such features make no practical difference in the commission of crimes. In the 1989 Stockton, California, schoolyard massacre, for example, Patrick Purdy used a semi-automatic version of the AK-47. But he could have done just as much damage with a semi-automatic hunting rifle.
Contrary to the impression created by media coverage of such incidents, "assault weapons" are rarely used in crimes. "Of the fatal shootings investigated by the Los Angeles Police Department's South Bureau homicide unit in 1990 and 1991, less than 2% involved assault weapons," reports the Los Angeles Times. "These kinds of guns don't play a large role in violent crime and they never have," Steve Helsely, assistant director of California's Division of Law Enforcement, told the Times.
Summing up 24 inventories of guns seized by police in cities nationwide, Kleck writes: "Virtually all of these studies show that only 0 to 4 percent of confiscated guns are assault weapons. Since about 12 percent of violent crimes involve guns, this means that assault weapons are used less than ½ of 1 percent of the time."
Most people who support "assault weapon" bans are probably misinformed. But law-enforcement officials such as Attorney General Janet Reno should know better, and so should gun-control activists. Kopel cites a 1988 memo in which Josh Sugarmann, now head of the Violence Policy Center, talked about using the specter of "assault weapons" to scare up support for gun control: "The semi-automatic weapons' menacing looks, coupled with the public's confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun—can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons."
From the perspective of gun-control supporters, the "assault weapon" hoopla may be a noble lie, but it is a lie nonetheless. If the people who seek to ban "assault weapons" really want to have a serious discussion about how to deal with crime, they should try telling the truth for a change.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Waco’s Wake".