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The Assault-Weapons Scam, Part 1

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The 1994 federal assault-weapons ban could be the first step towards legislation leading to the confiscation of tens of millions of private rifles, shotguns, and pistols. Though the bill Clinton signed purportedly targets only “assault weapons,” the loose definitions and expansive goals of the antigun lobby will almost certainly lead to a vast expansion of weapons to be seized. And, as the experience of several states and New York City shows, the destruction of the Second Amendment via political demagoguery has already progressed much further than most Americans realize.

In recent years, four states and numerous cities and counties have banned or severely restricted the ownership of assault weapons. According to the Defense Department, an assault weapon is a rifle that is capable of both automatic (machine gun) fire and semiautomatic (one shot per trigger pull) fire. But most of the media implicitly defines “assault weapon” as any “politically incorrect rifle.” Most bans focus on semiautomatic rifles, and media coverage routinely confuses semiautomatic with automatic machine guns, ownership of which has been severely restricted by the federal government since 1934. A study by David Kopel of Denver’s Independence Institute noted:

“American civilians have owned semiautomatics since the 1890s, and currently an estimated twenty to thirty million own the firearms covered by the broader definitions of ‘assault weapon.'”

As a result of muddled definitions of assault weapons, bans on such guns have been extremely arbitrary. California in 1989 banned the sale or transfer of assault weapons and required all existing owners to register their guns. The California law was very poorly drafted — California Attorney General Dan Lungren later admitted that some of the gun models specifically banned by the California legislature did not exist. San Francisco lawyer Don Kates suggested that legislators, in compiling the list of prohibited guns, appeared to have selected from “some picture book . . . of mislabeled firearms they thought looked evil.” The Los Angeles Times noted:

“Asked what action a police officer should take in dealing with an apparently illegal but misidentified gun, Lungren’s press secretary, Dave Puglia, said local authorities ‘are going to have to use their discretion.'”

Thus, since the state legislature made a mess of the statute, local officials should have the arbitrary power to pick and choose which guns to ban and which gun owners to arrest and imprison.

The vast majority of Californians did not register their guns; thus, the law may have created as many as 300,000 new criminals. In numerous cases, police carrying out searches of people’s homes have seized weapons they allege to be illegal assault weapons — and then refused to return them even after receiving proof that the guns are not legally banned under California law. The assault-weapons ban was enacted after politicians claimed that such guns were a grave public menace. But Torrey Johnson of the California Bureau of Forensic Services concluded in a confidential report:

“It is obvious to those of us in the state crime lab system that the presumption that [assault weapons] constitute a major threat in California is absolutely wrong.”

In 1989, the Denver city council banned Denver residents from owning or selling so-called assault weapons. (Residents could apply for police permission to continue possessing weapons obtained prior to the date of the ban.) Denver even banned residents from using assault weapons for self-defense in their own homes — as if government officials were seeking to prevent citizens from having an unfair advantage against burglars or rapists who break into their homes. In February 1993, a local court struck down the law as unconstitutionally vague and a violation of the state constitution.

New Jersey in 1990 banned ownership of so-called assault rifles. Governor Jim Florio declaimed: “There are some weapons that are just so dangerous that society has a right and the obligation even to take those weapons out of circulation.” President Clinton considers the New Jersey law a model for the nation, declaring last October: “We need a national law to do what New Jersey has done here with assault weapons.” But the ban was so extensive that even some models of BB guns were outlawed. Owners of the restricted guns were required to surrender them to the police, sell them to a licensed dealer, or render the guns inoperable. Yet, Ira Marlowe of the Coalition for New Jersey Sportsmen reported that “there was not one murder . . . with a semiautomatic assault weapon” in New Jersey in 1989, the year before the ban took effect. Joseph Constance, deputy chief of the Trenton, New Jersey, Police Department, told the Senate Judiciary Committee in August 1993:

“Since police started keeping statistics, we now know that assault weapons are/were used in an underwhelming .026 of 1 percent of crimes in New Jersey. This means that my officers are more likely to confront an escaped tiger from the local zoo than to confront an assault rifle in the hands of a drug-crazed killer on the streets.”

New Jersey had an estimated 300,000 owners of “assault weapons,” each potentially facing up to five years in prison for violating the state law.

New York City required rifle owners to register their guns in 1967; city council members at that time promised that the registration lists would not be used for a general confiscation of law-abiding citizens’ weapons. Roughly one million New Yorkers were obliged to register with police. The New York Times editorialized on September 26, 1967:

“No sportsman should object to a city law that makes it mandatory to obtain a license from the Police Department and to register rifles. . . . Carefully drawn local legislation would protect the constitutional rights of owners and buyers. The purpose of registration would be not to prohibit but to control dangerous weapons.”

In 1991, New York City Mayor David Dinkins railroaded a bill through the city council banning possession of many semiautomatic rifles, claiming that they were actually assault weapons. Scores of thousands of residents who had registered in 1967 and scrupulously obeyed the law were stripped of their right to own their guns. Police are now using the registration lists to crack down on gun owners; police have sent out threatening letters, and policemen have gone door-to-door demanding that people surrender their guns, according to Stephen Halbrook, a lawyer and author of two books on gun control.

Dinkins sold his gun ban largely by appealing to public fear of crime. Yet, New York City Police Commissioner (and now President Clinton’s drug czar) Lee Brown, when questioned by city council members, first claimed to have scores of examples of criminal abuses of registered rifles in the preceding decades.

Halbrook notes that the New York ban “prohibits so many guns that they don’t even know how many are prohibited” and that the law is so vague that the city police “arbitrarily apply it to almost any gun owner.” Jerold Levine, counsel to the New York Rifle Association, observed: “Tens of thousands of New York veterans who kept their rifles from World War II or the Korean War have been turned into felons as a result of this law. Even the puny target-shooting guns in Coney Island arcades have been banned under the new law because their magazines hold more than five rounds.” The motto of New York gun owners fighting the proposal was: “We Complied, They Lied.” Jerry Preiser, president of the Federation of New York State Rifle and Pistol Clubs, declared that the mayor’s and city council’s acts “only show that New York City’s leaders are like repeat sex offenders . . . they can never be trusted!”

The bans on assault weapons are products of political hysteria rather than a public safety campaign. A 1990 Florida state commission estimated that “only one-tenth of one percent of the guns used in crimes were so-called ‘assault weapons.'” The FBI Uniform Crime Reports indicated that rifles of all kinds account for only four percent of the nation’s homicides, and the number of homicides committed with rifles has fallen sharply in the last decade. William Poole, an Arizona public policy expert, observed: “This whole issue of identifying so-called ‘bad firearms’ is the intellectual equivalent of counting beer cans along the road and banning the most popular brands.”

Many local and state assault-weapons laws, as well as the federal law, contain provisions apparently written by people spooked after watching too many Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. The federal law bans guns that have grenade-launcher and bayonet-mount attachments. But neither the U.S. Justice Department nor the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms could provide a single example of either grenade launchers or bayonets attached to assault weapons being used in any violent crime in the United States. (Grenade launchers were used by the FBI in their final assault in Waco, but the FBI would not be affected by the bill.)

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    James Bovard serves as policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.