Published Friday, October 28, 2005, in Washington Times

Hype and reality

By John R. Lott, Jr.

Gun-control advocates seemed so certain. When the federal assault-weapons ban expired on Sept. 13, 2004, gun crimes would surge dramatically. Sarah Brady, a leading gun-control advocate, warned it would "arm our kids with Uzis and AK-47s" and "fill" our streets with the weapons. Sen. Charles Schumer ratcheted up the rhetoric, labeling the banned guns "the weapons of choice for terrorists."

    Not only would murder rise, but especially firearm murders. Murder and robbery rates should have gone up faster than other violent-crime rates since they are the crimes in which guns are most frequently used. Only states with their own assault-weapon bans would escape some of the coming bloodshed.

    Well, what happened? On Oct. 18, the FBI released the final data for 2004. It shows clearly that in the months after the law sunset, crime went down. During 2004 the murder rate nationwide fell by 3 percent, the first drop since 2000, with firearm deaths dropping by 4.4 percent.

    The new data show the monthly crime rate for the United States as a whole during 2004, and the monthly murder rate plummeted 14 percent from August through December. By contrast, during the same months in 2003 the murder rate fell only 1 percent.

    Curiously, the seven states that have their own assault-weapons bans saw a smaller drop in murders last year than the 43 states without such laws. States with bans averaged a 2 percent decline in murders. States without bans saw murder rates fall by more than 3.4 percent. Indeed, that, too, suggests that doing away with the ban actually reduced crime.

    And the drop in U.S. crime was not just limited to murder. Overall, violent crime also declined last year, according to the FBI, and the complete statistics carry another surprise for gun-control advocates: Murder and robbery rates fell by 3 percent and 4.1 percent, while rapes and aggravated assaults rates fell by only 0.2 and 1.5 percent.

    Yet, the sky-is-falling types of predictions were not just limited to gun controllers. The media hyped the dangers of "sunsetting" the ban. A search of a computer database of news stories turned up more than 560 articles in the first two weeks of September that expressed fear about ending the ban. It was even part of the presidential campaign: "Kerry blasts lapse of assault-weapons ban," one headline said. It will be surprising to see any news stories revisit those past claims.

    The media really should not have been so wrong about what was going to happen. Not a single published academic study has ever shown that these bans have reduced any type of violent crime. Even research funded by the Clinton administration didn't find that it reduced violent crime.

    And if reporters had actually ever fired guns they wouldn't have been taken in by the hysteria. There's nothing unique about the guns that these laws ban. The term assault weapon conjures up images of the fully automatic weapons used by the military, but the weapons in the ban actually function the same as any semiautomatic hunting rifle. They often fire the exact same bullets with the exact same rapidity and produce the exact same damage.

    The assault-weapons ban was one of the centerpieces of the Clinton administration and is arguably one of the two most important gun laws passed in the United States. What is so rare is how infrequently these laws are repealed so that we can so clearly test their effect.

    The claims of gun-control advocates that the "sky is falling" may get the media's attention, but fame is fickle. The new FBI crime numbers show that the only casualty from sunsetting the ban has been gun-controllers' credibility. Letting the law expire has at best only showed its uselessness. The real question is how much longer can the media take such hysteria seriously when it is so at odds with the facts. *   

*John R. Lott Jr., a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of "More Guns, Less Crime" and "The Bias Against Guns."


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