Published May 13, 2003, in The Washington Times
The gun control debate
By John R. Lott Jr.President Bush recently received rave reviews from what appeared an unlikely source: gun control organizations. Staking out a clear position over a year before the expiration of the so-called "assault weapons" ban, the president delighted gun controllers by announcing that he supports renewing the ban. The president has continued his politically moderate position on guns: opposing arming pilots on the one hand, but also opposing the lawsuits designed to drive the gun industry into bankruptcy. Moderation aside, however, the assault weapons ban makes no sense.
In the gun control debate, labels are often misleading. Assault weapon bans conjure up images of taking machine guns off America's streets, and the news media has often encouraged this view by showing machine guns in their stories on the ban. Yet, the 1994 federal ban has nothing to do with machine guns, only semi-automatics that fire one bullet per pull of the trigger. The ban arbitrarily outlaws some guns based upon their name or cosmetic features, such as whether the gun could have a bayonet attached.
Functionally, the banned guns are the same as other non-banned semi-automatic guns, firing the exact same bullets with the same rapidity and producing the exact same damage. Changing semi-automatic weapons into machine guns is not an easy task, as completely different firing mechanisms are used. It is easier to replace the entire gun than to re-engineer a semi-automatic gun.
Why anyone would think that such a law would reduce crime is a mystery. In theory, if so-called assault weapons are relatively more effectively used by criminals to commit crime than they are used by citizens to stop crime, banning the whole class could reduce crime. But since most guns are semi-automatic, such a ban would cover most guns. Even effectively banning a few semi-automatic guns would only change the brand of gun that criminals use.
President Clinton, who signed the 1994 assault weapon ban into law, complained in 1998 that gun manufacturers have been able to continue selling the banned guns simply by changing the guns' names or by making the necessary cosmetic changes.
Even a 1995 study by the Clinton administration showed how rarely these guns were used in crime during the early 1990s, before the ban was passed. Fewer than 1 percent of state and federal inmates carried a military-type semi-automatic gun when they committed a crime. A later 1997 survey showed that this number was the same or slightly higher after the ban.
Only two studies have been conducted on the federal law's impact on crime, one of which also examined the state assault weapons laws. One of these was funded by the Clinton administration and examined just the first year the law was in effect. It concluded that "the ban's short-term impact on gun violence has been uncertain."
The second study is found in my book, "The Bias Against Guns." It examines the first four years of the federal law as well as the different state assault weapon bans. Even after accounting for law enforcement, demographics, poverty and other factors that affect crime, the laws did not reduce any type of violent crime. In fact, overall violent crime actually rose slightly by 1.5 percent, but the impact was not statistically significant. The somewhat larger increase in murder rates was.
The data from the five states with assault weapons bans show no overall benefit, with seemingly random results: violent crime rose in California and Hawaii, remained unchanged in Massachusetts, and fell in Maryland and New Jersey.
The only clear result of the bans was to consistently reduce the number of gun shows by about 25 percent. Features such as bayonets and mounts on guns may not mean much to criminals, but gun collectors sure seem to like them.
Presumably, the purpose of limiting a law to a set period is to test it and to see if it lives up to its promises. The bans have been in effect for almost a decade, but there is still no evidence that they produced any benefits. If anything, there might well have been some small harm.
Fueled by false images of machine guns, the debate next year is likely to be very emotional. Hopefully, it will not be fact free.
John R. Lott Jr. is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.