Guns, Politics, and Freedom
August 22, 2004

Ban’s impact is a myth

By F. Paul Valone

Special to The News & Observer


Solicited by the Raleigh News & Observer as part of a “point-counterpoint” feature in the Sunday editorial section, the following column was published on August 22, 2004 during the Congressional debate over extending the federal ban on semi-automatic firearms. Under a ten year “sunset” provision, the law expired in September of 2004.

Sarah Brady of Handgun Control Inc. (aka “The Brady Campaign”) probably yearns for the 1990s, when passage of the Brady Law and “assault weapon” ban produced momentum for a still more far-reaching ban dubbed “Brady II.” Alas, her dreams were dashed in 1994 when voters repudiated her agenda by terminating Democratic control of Congress.

Without congressional action, the “assault weapon” ban will sunset on Sept. 13. Yet given election year posturing and Al Gore’s defeat in 2000 - largely on gun issues - left-wing politicians shun the controversy that would be generated by voting on it.

Before gauging the ban's effectiveness, let's dispel some myths. Gun opponents contrived the “assault weapon” misnomer to sow confusion with fully automatic assault rifles. As anti-gun Violence Policy Center director Josh Sugarmann schemed in a 1988 internal memo: “The semi-automatic weapon’s 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.”

But the ban covers not machine guns - restricted since 1934 – but semi-automatic firearms whose one-shot-per-trigger-pull capabilities are identical to hunting rifles.


“Assault weapons” aren't the choice of criminals. Even before the ban, the Justice Department described their use in homicide as “rare.” The Bureau of Justice Statistics found in a 2001 report that only about 1.7 percent of armed offenders interviewed in 1997 and 1991 surveys used “military-style” semi-automatic firearms in the commission of their crimes.

Nor are they exceptionally destructive. Says researcher/author David Kopel: “[A]mmunition for the military-style rifle is smaller, and hence less powerful [because] it was created for soldiers who would have to carry large quantities of ammunition over long distances.”

Banned firearms differ primarily by the “menacing looks” Sugarmann exploits - pistol grips, flash suppressors, folding stocks, detachable magazines and bayonet mounts. (Ever witness a drive-by bayoneting?) Although proponents claim the law affects only 19 firearms, it actually bans hundreds possessing these features.

Predictably claiming success, Handgun Control Inc. reports that tracing of crime guns depicts a drop in criminal use of banned weapons. But the fact that not all crime guns are traced, thereby biasing the sample, led the Congressional Research Service to conclude in 1992: “Trace requests are not accurate indicators of specified crimes.”

Handgun Control Inc. then selectively misquotes a National Institute of Justice report on the ban’s effectiveness, neglecting to mention the institute’s conclusion:  “The ban's short-term impact on gun violence has been uncertain…” due in part to “the relative rarity with which the banned weapons were used in gun violence…” - so rare, apparently, that researchers didn't assess whether their results were statistically significant.

Nor does Handgun Control Inc. mention a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention review finding no impact of “bans on specified firearms or ammunition,” even noting: “…evidence  indicated that sales of firearms to be banned might increase in the period before implementation  of the bans (e.g., the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994).”

Ever deceitful, Handgun Control Inc. even illustrates its propaganda with “street sweeper” shotguns which, restricted by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives as “destructive devices,” will remain illegal despite the sunset.

Sugarmann's own policy analyst, Tom Diaz, summarized the ban's impact, saying: “If the existing assault-weapons ban expires, I personally do not believe it will make one whit of difference one way or another in terms of…reducing death and injury...”

So why agitate to extend 10 years of failure? Because the goal of the “assault weapon” ban, like most gun control, is not to reduce crime but rather to incrementally restrict gun ownership in preparation for the confiscation of all private firearms.