Published November 18, 2003, in National Review Online

The 2004 Hunt: Presidential candidates on guns

By John R. Lott, Jr.

Democratic presidential candidates have recently taken up a new calling: offering advice to hunters. Governor Howard Dean supports extending the assault-weapons ban next year "because I never met a hunter who needed an AK-47 to shoot a deer." Senator John Kerry offered, "When I go out there and hunt, I'm going out there with a 12-gauge shotgun, not an assault weapon."

Clearly what worries these senators is that people and not deer will be “hunted” with these guns. As Sen. Carl Levin noted early this year, 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 claims the ban is one of "the most effective measures against terrorism that we have."

The most charitable interpretation is that the ban's proponents know nothing about guns. The “assault weapon ban” conjures up images of machine guns used by the military, which are surely not very useful in hunting deer. Yet, the 1994 federal assault weapons ban (search) had nothing to do with machine guns, only semi-automatics, which fire one bullet per pull of the trigger. The firing mechanisms in semi-automatic and machine guns are completely different. The entire firing mechanism of a semi-automatic gun has to be gutted and replaced to turn it into a machine gun.

Functionally, the banned semi-automatic 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. The ban arbitrarily outlaws different guns based upon either their name or whether they have two or more cosmetic features, such as whether the gun could have a bayonet attached or whether the rifle might have a pistol grip. While there were no studies or scientific basis offered for making these distinctions, the different names or cosmetic features were claimed to make these guns more attractive to criminals.

With the sniper trial now going in Virginia, the media understandably focuses on the so-called “sniper rifle.” Yet, the .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle (search) used in the sniper killings was neither a “sniper” rifle nor an “assault weapon.” In fact, it is such a low-powered rifle that most states ban it even for deer hunting precisely because of its low power, too frequently wounding and not killing deer. By contrast, the much-maligned AK-47 (search) (only new semi-automatic versions of the gun were banned) uses a .30-caliber bullet that is actually well suited to hunting deer.

The law never had any effect on crime. Banning a few percent of semi-automatic guns when otherwise identical guns are available only changes the brand criminals use. The law didn’t even stop the criminals from getting these guns. Even President Clinton, who signed the “assault weapon ban” into law, complained in 1998 how easy it had been for gun manufacturers to continue selling the banned guns simply by changing the guns’ names or by making the necessary cosmetic changes.

The banned guns were seldom used in crime to begin with. A 1995 Clinton administration study found that less than 1 percent of state and federal inmates carried “military-type” semi-automatic guns (a much broader set of guns than those banned by the law) for crimes they committed during the early 1990s before the ban. A similar 1997 survey showed no reduction in this type of crime gun 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 study was funded by the Clinton administration and examined just the first year the law was in effect. It concluded that the ban’s "impact on gun violence has been uncertain.

The second study was done by me and 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 significant.

The only clear result of the state bans was to consistently reduce the number of gun shows by about 25 percent. Features such as bayonet mounts on guns may not mean much to criminals, but gun collectors sure seem to like them.

The bans have now been in effect for almost a decade, without any evidence of any benefits. Increased crime is not the biggest danger arising from not extending the law. Politicians who have claimed such dire consequence from these mislabeled "assault weapons" have put their reputations on the line. If the extension fails, a year after that voters will wonder what all the hysteria was about.

Fueled by false images of machine guns and sniper rifles, the debate next year is likely to be very emotional. Let's hope that the politicians at least learn what guns are being banned.

John Lott, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of The Bias Against Guns (Regnery 2003).

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