From this morning's Missoulian, out of Missoula, Montana. A refreshing commentary on the assault weapons ban, especially coming from main-stram media. Thought you might like to read it.
Assault weapon rhetoric misses mark - Wednesday, July 21, 2004
Doomsayers are firing wild bursts of worrisome predictions about the expiration of the ban on assault weapons.
A cry of alarm is sounding around the country. In mid-September, the decade-old federal law banning a number of military-style "assault weapons" expires. To hear some of our colleagues in the news media talk, all **** is going to break loose starting Sept. 14.
"Anyone seeking weapons of mass destruction inside the United States may find it considerably easier after Sept. 13" when the ban expires, warns the Washington Post.
In "two months Å* the federal assault weapons ban dissolves like a wisp of gun smoke," opines the Los Angeles Times; political leaders who fail to renew the ban "risk making American cities and towns far more dangerous" undercutting the high-profile campaign to curb terrorism.
"Expect the market to become flooded" with AK-47s and Uzis, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, author of the 1994 law banning 19 specific weapons, recently told the San Francisco Chronicle.
This blast of rhetoric comes from people who switch to fully automatic every time the subject of guns comes up. In fact, the situation is nothing so dire as portrayed.
First, let's remember that Congress passed the assault weapon ban in 1994 after a series of high-profile shootings involving semiautomatic rifles. It came amid growing concern about rising crime rates in America, big-city street gangs, the crack cocaine epidemic and an emerging right-wing "militia" movement. The law attempted to identify a class of military and military-style guns seemingly designed for combat, rather than target shooting or hunting. Voting for the ban took Montana's Democratic Sen. Max Baucus as close as he's ever come to losing an election, but a poll we commissioned in 1995 showed a solid majority of Montanans favored banning assault weapons. More recent polls suggest very strong support nationally. Legislation renewing the ban died earlier this year after it was combined with a controversial bill granting gun makers liability protection.
There is one major flaw with the ban. It's one that the critics bring up at some peril to law-abiding gun owners. It's this: In mechanics and function, some of the banned weapons are not appreciably different than an array of rifles and shotguns that remain perfectly legal to manufacture. Generally speaking, the banned weapons look different than sporting arms. But functionally, they're the same.
That's one reason why Sept. 14 will not dawn with the staccato sounds of automatic fire. The assault weapon ban ended the manufacture and retail sale of certain weapons, but hardly dented the firepower at Americans' disposal.
And, for that matter, the 1994 law banned the manufacture and retail sale of those weapons. It didn't restrict ownership and resale of the weapons already in circulation - millions of them. In fact, many people ran out and bought assault weapons just before the law took effect, some because they wanted them, others seeking profit, hopeful that the ban would drive up the value of "grandfathered" guns. "Banned" assault weapons have always been readily available on the secondary market. Anyone who wants an assault rifle can buy one, and always could. The fact that you don't have to lay down covering fire to make your way from the parking lot to your office each morning is testament to the fact that the vast majority of guns in this country - including semi-automatic weapons and military-style weapons - are owned by responsible, law-abiding citizens. With or without a ban on the manufacture of assault weapons, these people have no desire to murder anyone.
The ban's major flaw is that it doesn't rationally differentiate banned weapons from legal ones. That's a strong argument in theory. Unfortunately, it's one that can be turned on its ear - that is, it may well serve as an argument to ban far more makes and models of guns. We'd hate to see that. The political climate in America today is more respectful of gun ownership than in decades past. But that can always change.
We'll bet the assault weapon ban will expire in September, no mayhem will immediately ensue, but the easing of restrictions will be short-lived. Sooner or later, Congress will reinstitute a ban. Clearly, the government may restrict to some degree the weaponry readily available to the public. On balance, that's a good thing. Who would like to see rocket-propelled grenades and stinger missiles available at the local pawn shop? The question is, where do we draw the line? As we've watched a supposedly conservative administration pare back other civil liberties in overreaction to Sept. 11, the thought occurs to us that it might not take much to draw the line right through your gun rack.
Then again, if people become hysterical enough about the current ban expiring Sept. 13, perhaps they'll be more than satisfied to have the line drawn at or near the current 19 assault weapons, thus preserving the status-quo. We could live with that.