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Critics of the recently expired assault weapons ban say it was toothless law anyway. Advocates say that it at least was something.
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
We’ve heard a lot about a “divided nation” recently, about how on certain issues, US citizens differ distinctly along political ideologies, with little common ground. There are a few hot button issues where the contrast is at its most striking, and one of the hottest is gun control.
In 1994, President Clinton signed into law the Violent Crime and Control Act, which included the first-ever federal Assault Weapons Ban, banning the future manufacture and importation of military-style assault weapons. The ban named 18 assault-style firearms in particular, including the AK-47, the TEC-9, and the AR-15.
On September 13, 2004, in the middle of a close and contentious presidential race, that ban was allowed to expire.
Yet gun control seemed conspicuous by its near absence during the campaign. It came up a few times, but the candidates themselves didn’t talk about it much. During the third debate, Senator Kerry stated that he was a hunter and gun owner and that he supports the Second Amendment. A photo-op during the campaign even showed him hunting. He may have looked like something out of Brideshead Revisited rather than Field & Stream, but that was an honest-to-goodness rifle in his hand.
President Bush said in that same debate that he supported the assault weapons ban, though by then the ban had already expired. Earlier, he had said that he would extend the 1994 ban if it came across his desk. Of course, it didn’t come across his desk (he said that he “was told it was never going to move”), and the National Rifle Association endorsed him shortly after the expiration date.
The ban expired without ever really becoming the lead story in the news. After a flurry of media attention, everyone turned their gaze back to the latest poll numbers.
Why, during a time when Americans are being asked to tolerate some government intrusion on civil liberties for the sake of homeland security, was a law seemingly aimed at keeping semi-automatic assault weapons off the streets allowed to expire? Especially since the 18 assault-style firearms named in the ban — the AK-47, the TEC-9, the Street Sweeper — are not typically used for hunting or home defense.
The answer may lie in some serious questions about the effectiveness of the law, which came with a few loopholes large enough to drive a tank through.
Despite the ban’s flaws, one sector campaigned quite vociferously for the ban to be extended: law enforcement. On September 8th, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, one of the nation’s leading gun-control organizations, held an event in Washington DC with many national police groups, including the Fraternal Order of Police, the National Sheriff’s Association, the Major County Sheriff’s Association, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, all requesting that Congress reauthorize the ban. John Shanks, the Law Enforcement Relations spokesman for the Brady Center, estimates it might have been the largest turnout of law enforcement on any gun issue. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) sent a letter to President Bush requesting a meeting, saying they would meet with him any time or place of the President’s choosing. “They felt so strongly about the sunset of the assault weapons ban they wanted to make sure that the President personally understood their views,” Shanks says. “But he had a scheduling conflict, and he couldn’t meet with our nation’s police chiefs. We had meetings scheduled with Senator (Bill) Frist (R-TN) and Representative (Dennis) Hastert (R-IL) that were cancelled at the last minute. The Senate Majority Leader and the Speaker of the House would not meet with national law enforcement folks. They left Washington very frustrated with our elected officials.”
Shanks shares their frustration. Shanks was a police officer in Texas for 22 years. He taught firearms at the police academy, and served as a detective and an undercover narcotics officer. Before that, he was in the Air Force. “You look at some of the policies that this administration has put forth, like the Patriot Act, but yet, we want to put more guns on the street,” he says. “This administration is responsible for reducing the funding in the Department of Justice Department for the C.O.P.S. program (Community Oriented Policing Services). They’ve taken more cops off the street, and put more guns on the street, which just doesn’t make sense.” Shanks says that since the ban has expired, it’s not only the gun itself that’s out there, but the high capacity magazine to go with it; officers aren’t only facing an AK-47 with a 10-round magazine, officers are now facing these weapons with a 50-round banana clip.
On the other hand, Jerry Amstutz, the jail administrator for the Adams County Sheriff’s Department, says that many law enforcement officers were actually in favor of the ban expiring. He points to a Law Enforcement Alliance of America poll of street officers where an overwhelming majority thought that the large capacity magazine and assault weapons ban should expire. “They know they can’t be everywhere at the time that they’re needed,” he says. “Law enforcement responds to an incident after it occurs. The best measure to prevent crime is for the citizen to be armed.”
Amstutz says that he hears something similar from the people on the inside of the Adams County lock-up. “They know where the police are at any given time. They’re more concerned with running into a citizen who’s armed.”
Amstutz cites a report called Updated Assessment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban written for the US Department of Justice that states that the assault weapons named in the ban were only used in 2% of crimes. Many of them, like the TEC-9, Amstutz calls “junk” — unreliable and prone to break or jam. The reliable, well-made weapons “…are God-awful expensive,” Amstutz says. “You’re talking thousand dollar weapons, and the average street punk is not going to put down a thousand dollars for a firearm. The average street punk is first going to see what he can steal. If he can steal one, you’ve just made his day. If he can’t steal one, he’ll buy one from someone who did. If he does that, you can pass whatever bans you want, it’s not going to make a bit of difference.”
Victor Hopkins, PIO with the Allen County police, and Robin Thompson, PIO with the Fort Wayne police, say that local law enforcement doesn’t typically see the kind of assault weapons named in the 1994 ban. “Around here, people have .45s, handguns,” Hopkins says. “Occasionally, we’ll run across a TEC-9.”
Nevertheless, Hopkins adds that semi-automatic weapons are always a general concern with law enforcement. He points to the 1997 incident in Los Angeles, where two men armed with modified AK-47s took hold of a Bank of America. “Those guys definitely outgunned the police. That is always a major concern, that criminals will be able to purchase those types of weapons legally … We think the assault ban should stay in place. We can lobby, but we can’t change their minds.”
Of course, pro-gun advocates point out that the incident in LA happened while the assault weapons ban was in place; the bank robbers obviously had no trouble getting the guns, proving the ineffectiveness of the ban. And that was one of the big problems with the recently expired assault weapons ban — it was full of holes.
The 1994 law banned certain types of firearms and stopped the manufacture of certain guns with features such as flash suppressors, pistol grips, bayonet lugs and collapsing stocks. But, if you bought your banned firearm before 1994, it was still legal for ownership and sale to anyone qualified, and so were pre-ban high capacity magazines. Some gun manufacturers merely removed the offending features from their firearms and continued to sell them as post-ban versions. “The classic example is the Colt AR-15,” says Kristen Rand of the Violence Policy Center, a national non-profit group called the "the most effective...anti-gun rabble rouser in Washington” by the NRA. “It had a detachable magazine, pistol grip, and a flash suppressor. So they took off the flash suppressor and replaced it with a muzzle break, which looks identical and serves a similar function, but doesn’t qualify it as a banned gun.”
“(The 1994 ban) never took one existing gun off the street,” says Erich Pratt of Gun Owners of America, an organization widely credited with helping the 1994 ban expire.
In fact, Pratt argues that the phrase “assault weapons” is really a misnomer. “These really aren’t assault weapons. Not one of the guns that was banned in 1994 is used by any military on the Earth,” he says. “They are semi-automatic firearms. Semi-automatics, you pull the trigger once, one bullet comes out of the barrel, as opposed to the machine gun. The ban didn’t cover one machine gun. In fact, the guns covered actually had less firepower than your average shotgun. I think that’s maybe another one of the misconceptions, that these were somehow super, incredible weapons. Actually, one of your typical hunting rifles or shotguns is much more powerful.”
Well, yes and no. The firearms named in the ban were semi-automatic versions of weapons made for military use. Technically, assault weapons are automatic weapons, machine guns, which have been pretty much off-limits to civilians since 1934. The gun manufacturers created semi-automatic versions to sell to civilians.
Also, hunters typically use a 12 gauge or 20 gauge shotgun, but unlike these guns, the semi-automatic weapons named under the now expired ban were designed for one purpose only, and it isn’t hunting game. “People don’t use these weapons for hunting, for the simple reason that there wouldn’t be any meat left to eat,” says Shanks.
A shotgun might be more powerful up close, but it's much less deadly at a distance. A round from an AK-47 is dangerous for miles away from where it's shot. Plus, with some shotguns, you have to manually clear the chamber of the bullet each time you fire, whereas with one of the semi-automatic weapons named in the ban, you pull the trigger 10 times, you fire the weapon 10 times. “These weapons are not designed for personal protection,” says John Shanks. “They are designed to kill human beings in combat. Period. These weapons fire a high-capacity, high-velocity round that will travel through 3 or 4 walls in a house before it stops. The bullets that these weapons fire will penetrate police body armor.”
One of the reasons cited for the ban was that some of these semi-automatic weapons could be easily modified into automatic weapons, but Pratt of Gun Owners of America says this operation isn’t as easy as pro-ban advocates make it out to be. “We’ve been involved in cases where the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms has tinkered with a firearm in their lab,” he says. “If there’s anybody who should be able to get these things converted, it’s the pointy heads at the BATF, and in many, many cases, they could only get it to fire two or three rounds consecutively on one pull of the trigger before the gun malfunctioned. You really have to have the skill, and if you took it to a machine shop to do it, they would obviously be breaking the law.”
But according to John Shanks, you wouldn’t need to take your semi-automatic to a machine shop. You can buy a conversion kit at gun show for as little as $7.95 that will show you how to convert a semi-automatic weapon, and provide you with the parts to do it. “The military M-16 has a selector level which goes from safe, to semi, to fully-automatic,” Shanks says. “If you would take the sear (the component of the trigger group which resists pressure on the trigger. When the pre-determined amount of pressure is applied, the sear releases, allowing the firearm to discharge) and file off the tip of it on an AR-15 (the semi-automatic version of the M-16), it would allow the selector level to go to fully automatic, and fire like a machine gun. They jokingly tell you, ‘it’s illegal to do it, but here are the parts and the instructions. It’s not our problem if you turn this legal semi-automatic weapon into a fully automatic machine gun. That’s on you, not on us.’”
Once again, hanging over all these points is whether or not the ban was effective. It’s something everyone on both sides of the issue tends to agree on, though for different reasons.
Jerry Amstutz puts it succinctly: “Before the ban ever went into effect, the types of firearms mentioned here were rarely used in any criminal activity,” he says. “But they were used in high-profile crimes, the ones that get a lot of publicity. That’s all you need to get a law passed, high publicity. It’s a feel good measure is all it was.”
“Unfortunately, the ban was really not effective,” says Kristen Rand of the Violence Policy Center. “The gun industry was very successful in exploiting the loopholes in the ban. Every gun that was banned by name in the law in some form or another was back on the market.”
Even the Updated Assessment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban report seems to throw up its hands and shrug. “…we cannot clearly credit the ban with the nation’s recent drop in gun violence. However, the ban’s exemption of millions of pre-ban AWs (assault weapons) and LCMs (large capacity magazines) ensured that the effects of the law would occur only gradually…”
Considering the number of loopholes in the bill and how easily gun manufacturers made a mockery of it, the law begins to look like the “sop” to gun control advocates that critics and ownership advocates always claimed it to be. Most gun control advocates acknowledge the bill wasn’t perfect; even Senator Dianne Feinstein, the bill’s original sponsor, has said “we could have written a better bill.” But they also say that before the ban expired, at least they had something. Now, with the current political climate, they don’t expect another debate on the subject anytime soon.