The 1994 federal law banning "assault weapons" was a high point of the gun control movement and Bill Clinton's presidency. Signing the bill, he said it was the beginning of "our effort to restore safety and security to the people of this country." But something happened that he and his allies had not predicted: nothing.
Duke University scholars Philip Cook and Kristin Goss, who are sympathetic to gun control efforts, assessed the ban in a book published this year and concluded, "There is no compelling evidence that it saved lives." A 2004 study led by Christopher Koper of the University of Pennsylvania agreed: "We cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation's recent drop in gun violence."
Homicides did decline after it became law—but they fell as well in the years after its 2004 expiration. From the standpoint of the safety and security of the American people, the prohibition was a non-event.
But gun control advocates, with a heroic disregard for real-world evidence, have never given up trying to get rid of these arms. The latest effort is a lawsuit filed by families of students and employees killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., two years ago.
The complaint says the maker and sellers of the AR-15 used by Adam Lanza should have to pay damages because in putting it on the market, they "chose to disregard the unreasonable risks the rifle posed." If they were held liable, the companies might also be ordered to stop selling it.
The AR-15 is too dangerous to tolerate, the lawsuit argues, because it is a military weapon whose "overwhelming firepower" and "extreme efficiency" serve to produce "maximum carnage." But the argument proves too much and too little.
If this gun has no place in civilian hands because of its destructive power, the same holds for plenty of other rifles that fire larger bullets than the .223 caliber rounds used by Lanza. If the problem is that it can fire rapidly, the charge applies to other semiautomatic firearms—which are the majority of guns sold in America. (This and other "assault weapons" are not machine guns.)
It can use a high-capacity magazine? So can millions of firearms omitted from the lawsuit. AR-15s are sometimes used to kill people, true, but it's handguns that account for most gun murders. By the logic of the lawsuit, any and all guns could be forced off the market—which, come to think of it, could be the point.
The implication is that if Lanza's mother had not been able to buy an AR-15, he would not have been able to wreak so much havoc. But Nancy Lanza could have bought other weapons that would have fully served his grotesque purposes.
What the lawsuit overlooks is that the vast majority of AR-15s have not been misused. They were sold to law-abiding citizens for perfectly legitimate purposes like hunting and target shooting. Banning them because a few lunatics may get hold of them is like banning Corvettes because some irresponsible buyers will drive 100 mph and end up in fatal crashes.
Central to the case is an old legal doctrine called "negligent entrustment." If I lend my car to someone who is visibly drunk, I can be held liable if he runs someone over. The plaintiffs want to use a novel version of that policy to punish gun companies.
The lawsuit doesn't say gun companies should be blocked from selling AR-15s to anyone known to be dangerous—which Nancy Lanza was not. It says gun companies should be blocked from selling to anyone, simply because some microscopic percentage of buyers will turn out to be mass murderers.
Some years ago, anti-gun organizations filed lawsuits trying to bankrupt firearm companies by holding them financially responsible for crimes committed with guns. It was the equivalent of suing Budweiser for alcohol-fueled violence or General Motors for traffic fatalities. Congress headed them off by passing a law prohibiting this type of liability.
Its judgment reflected the prevailing sentiment that the benefits of legal firearms outweigh the harms. The public and its elected representatives don't believe "assault weapons" are excessively hazardous or that eliminating them would appreciably hinder those bent on killing.
The courts are not likely to overrule those choices. In this battle, the gun control advocates have two formidable enemies: the law and experience.