THE CLINTON administration has claimed
a lot for the "assault gun" ban that passed Congress
in late 1994. While asserting that the original ban had reduced
violent crime and murder, President Bill Clinton last week banned
58 more foreign-made guns from sale in the United States.
There is no reason to believe banning
these guns has reduced crime. On the contrary, taking defensive
weapons out of the hands of the law-abiding urban poor may actually
encourage crime. More important, except for cosmetic differences
or provocative names, all these guns are essentially the same
as other legal rifles used by hunters.
The drop in murder rates began in
1991, before Clinton's presidency and several years before the
law was even passed. No evidence of the ban's effectiveness is
offered, other than to point out that after the law passed crime
rates continued declining - but these declines apparently resulted
from such causes as increases in arrests and decreases in drug
prices that reduced gang conflicts.
In any case, the ban applied to guns
that accounted for fewer than half of 1 percent of the murders
in the United States, and criminals were still able to commit
these crimes with other identical guns.
Clinton sees no contradiction in
claiming credit for this ban, reducing crime and simultaneously
complaining that the law was easily evaded by gun manufacturers,
which in some cases merely had to change the names of their guns
to meet compliance standards. An Israeli company that makes several
of the now-banned guns is simply moving its production to the
United States. The irony is further compounded because the ability
to evade the law was dismissed by Clinton as ridiculous when the
National Rifle Association predicted this very outcome during
the 1994 legislative debate.
In spite of all the rhetoric, these
so-called "assault weapons" are no different from other
semiautomatic rifles sold in the United States.
They are not more powerful, they
don't shoot any faster and they don't shoot any more rounds. Indeed,
the particular guns that were banned use smaller cartridges -
and thus possess less killing power - than standard hunting rifles.
Television news frequently incorrectly
shows pictures of rapid-fire machine guns when discussing the
ban, but semiautomatic weapons are not the same as automatic weapons.
Semiautomatic weapons fire one bullet each time the trigger is
The federal government's Bureau of
Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms notes that the banned guns are "difficult
to convert to automatic fire" and that this can be done only
by a highly skilled gunsmith using precision lathes. It requires
him to completely replace the existing firing mechanism. Converting
any gun into an automatic is a major felony, and it would probably
be just as easy for a gunsmith intent on building such a weapon
to do so from scratch.
Yet, banning the sales of foreign
semiautomatic rifles and pistols that are identical to domestically
made guns does have a couple of obvious effects: It raises gun
prices and lets domestic gun manufacturers make more money. Research
indicates that higher prices primarily hurt the law-abiding poor
who buy guns for protection. Increased gun ownership by poor,
law-abiding citizens in high-crime, urban areas is particularly
effective at reducing crime because people in such neighborhoods
must frequently depend upon themselves for protection.
Research reflects that criminals
tend to prey on powerless victims. Urban poor people with guns
are more able to defend themselves than those without weapons.
Clinton's bashing of guns also gives
the false impression that the solution to crime is further gun
control. But guns are not used merely to commit crime or to go
hunting. People use guns defensively an estimated 2.5 million
times each year, and states that have let law-abiding citizens
carry concealed handguns have experienced large drops in crime
that correspond closely to the number of permits issued.
Furthermore, the Department of Justice's
National Crime Victimization Survey reports that the probability
of serious injury from an attack is 2.5 times greater for women
offering no resistance than for women resisting with a gun.
Like much else about this administration,
its gun-control policy is show rather than substance. Demonizing
guns may provide Clinton a chance to show that he cares. Yet,
the real question should be: Why does he limit the competition
that domestic gun manufacturers face at the expense of the law-abiding
Copyright 1998, Newsday Inc.