Union Tribune

May 27, 2003

Debate rekindled on assault-weapon ban
Critics claim law has little effect


WASHINGTON If Congress allows the nation's decade-old assault-weapons ban to expire next year which seems likely then the prospect raises an important question: What would a world without an assault-weapons ban look like?

Brace yourself: It won't look much different.

That's the opinion of many experts about the 1994 ban that enraged gun supporters, elated gun-control advocates, created high drama in Congress and arguably led to the Election Day defeat of some who supported it.

Gun manufacturers have created legal weapons nearly identical to those that were outlawed, and federal studies indicate the law had little effect on crime. This has led gun-control advocates to wonder whether the ban went far enough, and gun-rights supporters to suggest that such laws do little more than boost the profiles of lawmakers such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

The California Democrat said she believes the ban she wrote and shepherded through Congress nearly 10 years ago has helped make America's streets safer.

"If you're a drive-by shooter, do you go out with a .38-caliber revolver?" she asked. "I don't think so. You just point (an assault weapon) out the window and pump away . . . and you're bound to hit somebody. What kind of a gun is that for civilian society?"

The assault-weapons ban outlaws the sale and possession of 19 types of firearms by name, and a host of others that have certain characteristics. It will expire Sept. 13, 2004, unless Congress passes a Feinstein bill that would make it permanent.

President Bush said he would support extending the ban, but he is not pressing for a vote from congressional conservatives, who don't want Republicans to weigh in on the politically touchy matter just before the election.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the president "is focused on the current legislative agenda" in Congress, rather than lobbying for the ban's extension.

Kristen Rand, legislative policy director for the Violence Policy Center, which supports the ban, said she believes Bush felt comfortable supporting an extension because he knew conservatives would never let it pass.

"Any candidate identified as pro-assault weapon is going to be viewed with skepticism by a big portion of the electorate, and probably most importantly suburban women" and independents who are key voters in next year's election, Rand said.

While polls show a majority of Americans support the ban, the weapons continue to be easily available. That's because gun manufacturers can produce virtually the same type of weapon and still comply with the law.

For instance, the ban outlaws semiautomatic rifles that have detachable magazines with more than 10 rounds of ammunition, and that have at least two other characteristics.

Among those are: A folding stock, which allows the gun to collapse for easier storage; a flash suppressor, which reduces the muzzle flash that can impede night-time vision; and a pistol grip, which makes it easier to steady the rifle against the shoulder.

Many manufacturers simply got rid of the banned characteristics and created nearly identical guns. Even some gun-control groups say the ban has been largely ineffective for that reason.

California's assault-weapons ban prevents the making of so-called "copy cat" firearms. Feinstein wants a similar law for the nation, but she said she cannot get it passed in the GOP-controlled Congress.

"I clearly don't have the votes for even a straight (extension of the ban) right now," said Feinstein, who plans to pressure colleagues with a binder showing all crimes involving assault weapons in their districts.

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms figures show that in 1993, 8.2 percent of guns used in crimes were assault weapons. By November 1996, that figure had fallen to 3.2 percent.

But that doesn't mean the assault-weapons ban reduced crime, gun-owners' groups said. Two studies by the Department of Justice published in 1999 and 2001 found no evidence that the ban had reduced the number of gunshot victims or gun incidents involving multiple victims a chief goal for those who supported the ban.

Joe Waldron, executive director of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, said the ban is superficial but it helped Feinstein win a tough 1994 campaign against former Rep. Michael Huffington.

"This is a purely cosmetic rifle ban," Waldron said. "The features involved have no practical impact one way or the other."

Said Feinstein: "I would pass the strongest possible regulatory law I could, but I can't get it passed. The question is, do we do nothing and allow guns . . . that are designed to be military weapons . . . on our streets?"

If extending the ban would have little effect, as some experts say, why worry if it's extended?

For groups such as the National Rifle Association, it's a matter of getting rid of what it considers a useless law. Every gun-control law is a step toward what the NRA says is the ultimate goal of gun-control advocates: Preventing Americans from owning any firearms.

"The agenda is to incrementally chip away at the rights of all law-abiding Americans, regardless of whether (gun-control laws) have a substantive impact on reducing crime," said Andrew Arulanandam, an NRA spokesman.