Weapon Assault: The Advantage of Weak Arguments

By Sullum, Jacob | Reason, July 1994 | Go to article overview
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Weapon Assault: The Advantage of Weak Arguments


Sullum, Jacob, Reason


SUPPOSE A LOBBY GROUP WANTS CONgress to ban "death cars." They are a little fuzzy about what, exactly, "death cars" are, but the vehicles seem to share certain characteristics, including red paint and speedometers that go above 100 mph. These cars are said to be the favored vehicles of speeders and drunk drivers, and they are supposedly designed to cause accidents that kill as many people as possible. Supporters of the ban cannot back up their claims with mechanical explanations or statistics, but they can provide the gruesome details of crashes involving "death cars."

The logic behind the "assault weapon" ban recently approved by Congress is hardly more compelling than the case against "death cars." The legislation's success says more about the level of contempt for the Second Amendment than it does about the strength of arguments for the ban.

Introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the "assault weapon" ban forbids making or importing ammunition clips holding more than 10 rounds and semiautomatic firearms that accept such clips and have two or more of these features: folding stock, pistol grip, bayonet mount, threaded barrel for a flash suppressor, grenade launch mount, barrel shroud. The law bans 19 firearms by name, but it covers a total of 184 current models, as well as any new guns that fit the definition.

Notwithstanding the claim by three former presidents that "this is a matter of vital importance to the public safety," there is little reason to believe that banning these weapons will have any effect on violent crime. Despite the scary-looking, military-style features, the guns are no more lethal than hundreds of firearms that remain legal. They fire at the same rate as any other semiautomatic gun--in other words, no faster than a revolver. Their ammunition is of intermediate caliber, less formidable than the cartridges fired by many hunting rifles.

Comments by members of Congress indicate widespread confusion about the capabilities of "assault weapons." Rep. Ronald D. Coleman (D-Tex.) said he reversed his opposition to the ban because he wanted to "make it harder for drug thugs and gangs to get the machine guns that wantonly kill our police officers and children." Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), whose much-publicized switch helped rescue the ban when it seemed headed for defeat, asked: "What's the difference between a hand grenade and an AK-47 that can spray a crowd and kill people?"

Despite the implication of these and other remarks by supporters of the ban, the legislation does not deal with machine guns, which are already severely restricted by federal law. Since even members of Congress who voted for the ban don't seem to know which guns it covers, the strong support for the measure among the general public does not mean much (although it does suggest that voting for the ban did not take quite as much "courage" as the gun-control lobby would have us believe).

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