Weapon Assault

The advantage of weak arguments.


Suppose a lobby group wants Congress to ban "death cars." They are a little fuzzy about what, exactly, "death cars" are, but the vehicles seem to share certain characteristics, including red paint and speedometers that go above 100 mph. These cars are said to be the favored vehicles of speeders and drunk drivers, and they are supposedly designed to cause accidents that kill as many people as possible. Supporters of the ban cannot back up their claims with mechanical explanations or statistics, but they can provide the gruesome details of crashes involving "death cars."

The logic behind the "assault weapon" ban recently approved by Congress is hardly more compelling than the case against "death cars." The legislation's success says more about the level of contempt for the Second Amendment than it does about the strength of arguments for the ban.

Introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the "assault weapon" ban forbids making or importing ammunition clips holding more than 10 rounds and semiautomatic firearms that accept such clips and have two or more of these features: folding stock, pistol grip, bayonet mount, threaded barrel for a flash suppressor, grenade launch mount, barrel shroud. The law bans 19 firearms by name, but it covers a total of 184 current models, as well as any new guns that fit the definition.

Notwithstanding the claim by three former presidents that "this is a matter of vital importance to the public safety," there is little reason to believe that banning these weapons will have any effect on violent crime. Despite the scary-looking, military-style features, the guns are no more lethal than hundreds of firearms that remain legal. They fire at the same rate as any other semiautomatic gun–in other words, no faster than a revolver. Their ammunition is of intermediate caliber, less formidable than the cartridges fired by many hunting rifles.

Comments by members of Congress indicate widespread confusion about the capabilities of "assault weapons." Rep. Ronald D. Coleman (D-Tex.) said he reversed his opposition to the ban because he wanted to "make it harder for drug thugs and gangs to get the machine guns that wantonly kill our police officers and children." Rep. Henry Hyde (R-lll.), whose much-publicized switch helped rescue the ban when it seemed headed for defeat, asked: "What's the difference between a hand grenade and an AK-47 that can spray a crowd and kill people?"

Despite the implication of these and other remarks by supporters of the ban, the legislation does not deal with machine guns, which are already severely restricted by federal law. Since even members of Congress who voted for the ban don't seem to know which guns it covers, the strong support for the measure among the general public does not mean much (although it does suggest that voting for the ban did not take quite as much "courage" as the gun-control lobby would have us believe).

Supporters of the ban also argued that "assault weapons" are disproportionately represented among guns used in crimes. "Although assault weapons account for less than 1% of the guns in circulation," wrote former Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan in a letter to House members, "they account for nearly 10 percent of the guns traced to crime." This number refers to weapons traced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. But gun-control scholar David Kopel reports that the BATF traces less than 2 percent of the guns used in violent crime each year, and the sample is not representative.

As Kopel notes, "assault weapons" are more likely to be traced than other guns precisely because they are unusual and have been the subject of so much attention. Furthermore, almost all of them were made after the Gun Control Act of 1968 and therefore have serial numbers, which are necessary to do a trace. Inventories of guns seized from criminals in major cities indicate that trace figures vastly overstate the use of "assault weapons" in crime. Summarizing data from 24 such inventories, criminologist Gary Kleck writes: "Virtually all of these studies show that only 0 to 4 percent of confiscated guns are assault weapons."

Because the statistics show that "assault weapons" are rarely used in crime, advocates of the ban tended to focus on specific cases. Handgun Control Inc. took out a full-page ad in the April 27 New York Times describing four murders committed with weapons or magazines covered by the ban. And Hyde said he decided to vote for the ban after Feinstein provided him with accounts of murders, including some in Chicago. This sort of appeal can have a strong emotional impact, but it carries no logical weight whatsoever. Handgun Control Inc. or Feinstein could just as easily have found examples of murders committed with shotguns or revolvers. The anecdotes proved nothing about the merits of the bill.

In the end, the shoddiness of the case for the "assault weapon" ban makes it all the more formidable as a precedent. Gun control activists will use the points made by the ban's critics to argue for more sweeping restrictions. They will note that the ban has not had an observable ettect on crime. They will discover that it leaves untouched many guns that are just as dangerous as "assault weapons," if not more so. And they will already have established that it' s OK to violate the right to keep and bear arms, as long as you have a reason. It doesn't even have to be a good one.