NPR Examines the Semi-automatic gun ban

National Public Radio (NPR)

SHOW: Morning Edition (10:00 AM ET) - NPR

March 11, 2004 Thursday

LENGTH: 987 words

HEADLINE: Assault weapons ban due to expire in September




This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Bob Edwards.

Gun control advocates won a big victory last week, but it didn't last long. They passed a Senate amendment that would have extended the assault weapons ban. Gun control opponents were so upset that they killed the entire package of legislation. The ban is due to expire in September, and gun control supporters are making its renewal a do-or-die issue. NPR's Larry Abramson reports that people on both sides agree the ban has not worked as intended.


The Violence Policy Center is one of the more aggressive gun groups in Washington, DC, and analyst Tom Diaz is their assault weapons guy. It's his job to emphasize just how deadly these guns are. So how does he feel about the effort to renew the assault weapons ban?

Mr. TOM DIAZ (Violence Policy Center): 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. (Soundbite of car doors closing)

ABRAMSON: To explain why, we have to travel. The District of Columbia's law against assault weapons is even stricter than the federal government's. Virginia's is more friendly, so the Violence Policy Center keeps its samples at a house on the other side of the Potomac.

Mr. DIAZ: Hi, Amy.

(Soundbite of door closing)

ABRAMSON: Diaz knocks on the door of a house in Arlington, Virginia, a suburb of Washington. This is where he keeps a small collection of assault-style weapons.

(Soundbite of gun case opening)

ABRAMSON: Diaz opens a gun case and pulls out a Bushmaster XM-15.

Mr. DIAZ: So this is the model that the Washington snipers used. They can be used, as the snipers did, for precision firing.

ABRAMSON: But, Diaz says, it can also be used to spray bullets, which he contends is the chief purpose of these guns. Bushmaster has simply redesigned the gun to remove features specifically forbidden by the assault weapons ban, like a collapsible stock.

Mr. DIAZ: The bells and whistles that were in the earlier law, this gun has none of them, so it's perfectly legal. This stock kind of looks like it folds, but it doesn't. It's fixed. There's no bayonet mount on this gun.

ABRAMSON: Diaz says that's all the law brought about, minor changes in appearance that didn't alter the function of these weapons. The neighbors might object if Diaz fired the weapon here, so he shows a video he made of himself firing another perfectly legal weapon, a knock-off of the AK-47, outfitted with an oversized ammunition magazine made before the ban.

(Soundbite of gun firing)

ABRAMSON: Automatic weapons may be against the law in the United States, but in the hands of an experienced shooter, this semi-automatic rifle comes pretty close. That's why Diaz thinks a new, improved assault weapons ban should focus on function instead of form. But back in his car on the way home, Diaz also acknowledges that this country will never really restrict the use of all semi-automatic weapons.

Mr. DIAZ: There are always gonna be firearms in America. That's just the nature of American society. The question is: What can we do to reduce unnecessary death and injury?

ABRAMSON: But other people have learned a different lesson from the problems with this gun law.

Mr. MICHAEL ZARLENGA (The Trophy Room): My name's Michael Zarlenga. I'm the owner of The Trophy Room in Alexandria, Virginia.

ABRAMSON: The Trophy Room is a small hunting and fishing boutique. The trophies are hung on the wall: mounts of wild boar and other animals Zarlenga has bagged on trips with his family.

Mr. ZARLENGA: Yeah, most of the mounts in here are mine or my wife's.

ABRAMSON: Zarlenga doesn't do much of a business in assault rifles. Mostly he's selling expensive shotguns to duck hunters. But as a businessman, he's clear on what he thinks about this law.

Mr. ZARLENGA: I think that the assault weapons ban has been a failure. I think it has accomplished nothing other than to drive the price in the secondary market of preban firearms up, only benefiting people who own them and trade in them.

ABRAMSON: Zarlenga says investigators inspected his shop when the snipers were on the loose, but he's careful with his records. You won't find rifles missing from his inventory, as happened with a gun shop the snipers visited in Tacoma, Washington. The Bushmaster used in those slayings was obtained illegally. For Zarlenga, that's what happens with most gun laws.

Mr. ZARLENGA: Gun control or magazine cap limitations or--the only people that they affect are the law-abiding citizens. The criminals are still gonna use 10-, 12-, 15-, 20-round magazines if they can get their hands on them.

ABRAMSON: Proponents of the assault weapons ban say the law isn't perfect, but it has kept things from getting worse.

Mr. BRIAN SIEBEL (The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence): Well, I think the data shows that the assault weapon ban has been very effective at reducing the rate at which these dangerous weapons are recovered in crime.

ABRAMSON: Brian Siebel of The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence says that data helped persuade key legislators to vote for renewing the ban in the Senate last week. He says the law is steadily cutting into the supply of assault weapons.

Mr. SIEBEL: Obviously preban weapons are still in existence, but over time their availability has declined, and thus you've seen, we've seen from the data, it shows a steady decline in the rate at which these guns are recovered in crime.

ABRAMSON: Siebel hopes that data will persuade undecided members of Congress that when it comes to dangerous weapons, half a ban is better than none. Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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