Article published Thursday, March 25, 2004, at National Review Online.

A Weapon Surrendered: Gun-control groups concede the frivolity of the “assault-weapons ban.”

By John R. Lott Jr.

The so-called "assault-weapons ban," a hallmark of the gun-control movement, is dead. After a decade of claiming that the ban is crucial to reducing crime and protecting police, gun-control organizations have suddenly morphed into Gilda Radner's old Saturday Night Live character, Roseanne Rosanna-Dana, saying "never mind."

An example? Take the statements made recently on National Public Radio by a representative of the Violence Policy Center. NPR described the VPC as "one of the more aggressive gun groups in Washington." Yet the VPC's representative claimed: "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 our objective, which is reducing death and injury and getting a particularly lethal class of firearms off the streets. So if it doesn't pass, it doesn't pass."

The NPR reporter noted: "[the Violence Policy Center's representative] says that's all the [assault-weapons ban] brought about, minor changes in appearance that didn't alter the function of these weapons."

These are "aggressive" gun controllers? These are points one expects to hear them from the NRA. True, there is not a single academic study showing that either the state or federal bans have reduced violent crime. Even research funded by the Justice Department under the Clinton administration concluded merely that the ban's "impact on gun violence has been uncertain."

And it is also true that the ban arbitrarily outlaws some guns based on brand name or cosmetic features — such as whether a rifle has two or more of the following: a bayonet mount, a pistol grip, a folding stock, or a threaded muzzle. These were not machine guns: The federal assault-weapons ban applied to semi-automatics that fire one bullet per pull of the trigger. Not only could someone buy some other semi-automatic gun that wasn't banned that fired the same bullets, with the same rapidity and with the same damage, but even the banned guns could be sold under a different name or after, say, the bayonet mount was removed.

Yet, one almost faints when one now hears gun-control groups make these same points. Previously the VPC claimed that it was a "myth" that "assault weapons merely look different. The NRA and the gun industry today portray assault weapons as misunderstood ugly ducklings, no different from other semi-automatic guns. But while the actions, or internal mechanisms, of all semi-automatic guns are similar, the actions of assault weapons are part of a broader design package. The 'ugly' looks of the TEC-9, AR-15, AK-47 and similar guns reflect this package of features designed to kill people efficiently."

Other hysterical assertions were that "many semi-automatic assault weapons can be, and often are, easily converted to automatic fire with modest tools and skill" or described these cosmetic features as "lethal design features."

So why the conversion? The simple reason is that gun-control groups' credibility is on the line. A year from now, it will be obvious to everyone that all the horror stories about banning what have been labeled "assault weapons" were wrong.

Eliminating the ban will not produce an upward surge in crime. There will be no upward surge in police killings. Gun controllers have a problem: It will be much harder for legislators and the press to take gun-control groups' apocalyptic claims seriously after they fail to materialize on such a high-profile issue.

It is not just the gun-control groups who have mischaracterized the issue. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry supports extending the ban because, "When I go out there and hunt, I'm going out there with a 12-gauge shotgun, not an assault weapon." Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.) has said that allowing the ban to expire will "inevitably lead to a rise in gun crimes." Ratcheting up the fear factor to an entirely new level, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) says the ban is one of "the most effective measures against terrorism that we have."

Despite gun-control organizations' finally agreeing that the semi-automatic gun ban now doesn't matter, too much has been made of the importance of this legislation for too many years. Somehow, the obvious failure of the semi-automatic-gun ban will be a fitting epitaph for one of the gun-control movement's hallmark pieces of legislation. It would have been nice if gun-control organizations had been honest and told us all of this a decade ago.

John Lott Jr, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, is author of "More Guns, Less Crime" (University of Chicago Press, 2000) and "The Bias Against Guns" (Regnery, 2003).

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