Published May 30, 2003, in The Star-Ledger (New Jersey)

Scare Tactics on Guns and Terror

By John R. Lott Jr.

Who could oppose laws preventing terrorists from getting guns? Obviously no one. But it would be nice if the law accomplished something more than simply making it more difficult for Americans to own guns.

Last week, the Congressional Research Service issued an alarming report claiming that international terrorists can easily exploit U.S. gun laws. Senator Lautenberg had requested the report. Unfortunately, the report simply lists possibilities that are often impossible or only remotely plausible.

The report points to loopholes in existing laws such as allowing ?official representatives of a foreign government ? possession of a firearm if necessary to their official capacity.? Similar loopholes are pointed out for other ?officials of foreign governments? who have the permission of their governments, need it for their official duties, and who have been residents in a state for at least 90 days.

Of course, such attacks using government agents is not what al Qaeda has been doing nor is there any evidence that foreign government officials are currently planning such attacks. But if a foreign government plans on using diplomatic cover to engage in terrorism, surely just banning such officials from buying guns in the US won?t stop them from getting access to guns. What is the solution? Full body searches of foreign diplomats entering the US? Searches of all diplomatic poaches?

The report mentions threats from ?semi-automatic assault weapons? and 50-caliber ?sniper rifles.? Yet, these banned semi-automatic assault weapons are not machine guns. They function exactly the same as other semi-automatic guns and fire one bullet per pull of the trigger. The banned guns are the same as other non-banned semi-automatic guns, firing the exact same bullets with the same rapidity. Forcing gun makers to change the name of their gun or changing cosmetic features, such as a bayonet mount, have nothing to do with terrorism.

The assault weapons ban has been in effect for almost a decade, but there is still not one study showing that it reduced any type of violent crime. No studies indicate that similar state laws, such as New Jersey?s 1990 law, have also not reduced violent crime.

For years gun control groups have tried to ban fifty-caliber rifles because of fears that criminals could use them. Such bans have not been passed these guns were simply not suited for crime. Fifty-caliber rifles are big, heavy guns, weighing at least 30 pounds and using a 29-inch barrel. They are also relatively expensive. Models that hold one bullet at a time run nearly $3,000. Semi-automatic versions cost around $7,000. They are purchased by wealthy target shooters and big-game hunters, not criminals. The bottom line is that no one in the US has ever been killed with such a gun.

The link to terrorism supposedly provides a new possible reason to ban fifty-caliber rifles. But the decision to demonize these particular guns and not say .475-caliber hunting rifles is completely arbitrary. The difference in width of these bullets is a trivial .025 inches. What's next? Banning .45-caliber pistols? Indeed that is the whole point to gradually reducing the type of guns that people can own.

The report raises alarm about terrorists getting guns at gun shows is just as misleading. As evidence of this threat the report cites a Florida newspaper story claiming that ?members of Hezbollah were convicted of a variety of firearms violations for attempting to smuggle firearms purchased at a Michigan gun show out of the country.? Unfortunately, none of the laws being advocated by the Senator would actually have been relevant here. A Lebanese citizen did try to illegally ship two shotguns to Lebanon. However, the guns were purchased by the Lebanese citizen?s brother, a naturalized American citizen -- not a foreign terrorist. While shipping the two shotguns broke export regulations, the supposed link with Hezbollah was never made.

Given that gun shows account for such a trivial share of guns obtained by criminals, less than one percent, and there is not even anecdotal evidence that the laws would have stopped terrorism, the proposals seem to be all costs and no benefits. Empirical work that I have done indicates that the types of regulations advocated by the report would reduce the number of gun shows by between about 14 and 24 percent.

Fighting terrorism is a noble cause, but the laws we pass must have some real link to solving the problem. Absent that, many will think that Senator Lautenberg is simply using terrorism as an excuse to promote rules that he previously pushed. Making it difficult for law-abiding Americans to own guns should not be the only accomplishment of new laws.

*John Lott, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of the newly released book, The Bias Against Guns. He can be reached at jlott@aei.org.

Correction

It has come to may attention that there may have been one murder in the United States with a fifty caliber rifle in April, 1995. It is not completely clear whether the murder of a Colorado sheriff's Sgt. Timothy Mossbrucker was committed with a 7.62mm SKS rifle or with a bipod-equipped .50-caliber "Grizzly" bolt-action rifle, but it appears quite possible that it was with the .50 caliber gun. In any case, this doesn't change the general point about how incredibly rare these cases are.

Scare Tactics on Guns and Terror
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