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The Assault-Weapons Scam, Part 2

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The federal assault-weapons ban is widely perceived as a foot in the door to far more extensive gun bans. When a Christian Science Monitor reporter asked Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the lead sponsor of the bill, why her amendment did not ban all semiautomatic guns, Feinstein replied: “We couldn’t have gotten it through Congress.” Democratic Representative Charles Schumer of New York, declared: “We’ll be carrying the Feinstein banner in the House when it comes to semiautomatic weapons.”

If all semiautomatic guns were banned, the federal government would confiscate up to thirty-five million weapons. The Clinton administration has tentatively embraced a proposal to require all gun owners to be licensed — which could be a prelude to the type of gun confiscations ongoing in New York City.

Some of the rationales offered for banning assault weapons were almost comical. Senator Feinstein declared that assault weapons should be banned because they can fire many rounds “within seconds and without warning.” Perhaps Senator Feinstein thinks that guns should be equipped with an official warning notice, such as a tape recording, announcing before firing: “Warning: Redneck May Pull Trigger in Five Seconds.” Complaining that guns fire “without warning” makes as much sense as complaining that politicians talk before thinking.

The 1994 attack on assault weapons often showed the emotional fervor of an old-time gospel revival show. (President Clinton told a Washington church audience last August that it was “the will of God” that Congress approve his crime bill.) Yet, as with most holy wars, some of the warriors are not without the taint of hypocrisy. Senator John Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, was a fervent supporter of the crime bill and the assault-weapons ban. A few days after the bill had passed the Senate, the Charleston (West Virginia) Daily Mail reported from Washington:

“If burglars are casing big houses around here, they may want to give wide berth to the Rockefeller mansion. The occupant is packing heat and knows how to use it. Senator Jay Rockefeller disclosed that for the past 25 years, he has been the proud owner of a Colt AR-15, a so-called assault weapon used in Vietnam. Rockefeller keeps the rifle in his Washington home.”

This was news to the Washington police, which ban the ownership of AR-15s in the District of Columbia. After Rockefeller was told that having such a gun in the District was a crime, he “remembered” that he actually kept the gun stored in northern Virginia. Rockefeller also claimed that he was unaware that the District of Columbia banned such guns. Rockefeller has private security guards around his lavish Washington home, and the Senate office buildings where he works are heavily guarded by well-fed Capitol policemen. Yet he still feels entitled to own a gun that he wanted to severely restrict other Americans from being able to purchase.

The assault-weapons ban, as it now stands, is based largely on blind faith in the BATF to administer a badly written law. The BATF has already indicated that, aside from the 19 guns named in the act, over 160 other guns would be covered under the generic definitions offered in the bill. Given the vagueness of the law, vast numbers of Americans would likely unknowingly, unintentionally violate the law.

A June 1994 Supreme Court decision sheds invaluable light on how the assault-weapons ban will likely be administered. Harold Staples of Oklahoma owned a semiautomatic rifle — an AR-15; the BATF raided his home, found the gun, and confiscated it, claiming that it was actually a machine gun, i.e., an automatic weapon. (The National Firearms Act of 1934 bans possession of unregistered, unlicensed machine guns.)

The BATF argued in court that the gun had been illegally modified so that it could fire more than one bullet with each trigger pull — the technical definition of an automatic weapon. Staples swore that when he operated the gun, it fired only one shot per trigger pull, and functioned poorly at that. Each violation of the National Firearms Act can be punished by up to ten years in prison. (Stephen Halbrook, a lawyer and author of two books on gun control, notes that the BATF, after it confiscates a person’s guns, sometimes tampers with the guns to make them shoot automatically — and then drags the person into court on trumped-up charges.)

The Clinton administration asserted that gun owners must be presumed guilty even in cases where they had no intention to break the law. The Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision, rejected the administration’s arguments; writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas declared: “The government’s position, is precisely that ‘guns in general’ are dangerous items. [For] the Government . . . the proposition that a defendant’s knowledge that the item he possessed ‘was a gun’ is sufficient for a conviction.” Justice Thomas pilloried the Clinton administration’s position: “In the Government’s view, any person . . . who simply has inherited a gun from a relative and left it untouched in an attic or basement, can be subject to imprisonment, despite absolute ignorance of the gun’s firing capabilities, if the gun turns out to be an automatic.”

The Clinton administration implicitly argued before the Supreme Court that gun owners are the legal equivalent of drug dealers. To justify their claim that gun owners must be presumed guilty, government prosecutors cited cases involving the presumption of guilt under the federal Narcotics Act of 1914. (At one point in the case, federal prosecutors argued that “one would hardly be surprised to learn that owning a gun is not an innocent act.”) Since drug dealers are automatically assumed to know they are violating federal narcotics laws, the Clinton administration claimed that gun owners must be presumed to know when they violate federal gun laws. Yet the Constitution does not expressly guarantee citizens’ right to sell crack, but it does expressly protect citizens’ right to bear arms.

On the surface, the Staples decision was a major victory for gun owners. But federal bureaucrats and congressmen have rarely let court decisions long impede their efforts to further restrict Americans’ liberties. The Staples decision raised hackles among supporters of the assault-weapons ban; Congressman Schumer told The New York Times that the bill may need to be amended to include a proof of intent to violate the law.

Yet, the final bill included no such requirement for proof of criminal intent. Thus, millions of Americans could face five-year prison sentences for such “crimes” as merely buying or possessing a rifle or pistol magazine that would hold more than ten bullets. (The act, in a leap of liberal creativity, defines gun magazines as assault weapons, even though a magazine by itself is harmless.)

The Clinton administration explicitly came out in favor of a ban on all semiautomatics last year. The Clinton administration’s official federal budget presentation for 1995 (released in early 1994) announced: “The administration also supports a ban on semi-automatic firearms.” Clinton administration officials later disavowed the statement, claiming that they didn’t know how that sentence managed to get into the official budget plans of the president — as if the sentence was simply a typo caused by a malfunctioning spell-check program.

Assault-weapons laws resemble hate-speech laws. Hate-speech laws usually begin by targeting a few words which almost no one approves. Once the system for controlling and punishing “hate speech” is put into place, there is little or nothing to stop it from expanding to punish more and more types of everyday speech. Similarly, once an assault-weapons law is on the books, there is little to prevent politicians from vastly increasing the number of weapons banned under the law.

Gun laws are an attempt to nationalize — to confiscate — the right of self-defense. Politicians perennially react to the police’s total failure to control crime by trying to disarm law-abiding citizens. In a nutshell, gun control means that because criminals abuse guns, law-abiding citizens have no right to defend themselves. The worse government fails to control crime, the less right each individual citizen has to defend himself. The guiding principle of handgun banners appears to be: No matter how badly the government fails to protect a citizen, the citizen still has no right to protect himself.

The political creeping repeal of the right to self-defense is a huge decrease in the modern American’s liberty because the government has completely failed to fill the void. The government has stripped millions of people of their right to own weapons — yet generally left them free to be robbed, raped, and murdered. Gun control is one of the best cases of governments enacting laws that “corner” private citizens — forcing the citizen either to put himself into danger or to be a lawbreaker.

The 1992 Los Angeles riot illustrated why people cannot rely on police to protect their lives or their livelihoods. When mobs began looting, burning, and savagely assaulting defenseless individuals, the Los Angeles police turned tail and ran, leaving hundreds of business owners to see their life savings plundered.

When asked on the first day of the riot about the lack of police protection for people being beaten by mobs, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates replied: “There are going to be situations where people are going to go without assistance. That’s just the facts of life. There are not enough of us to be everywhere.” Gates later admitted that “a little panic and paralysis settled in” among police officers. Armand Arabian, a California Supreme Court justice, noted that if the Los Angeles Police Department had responded any slower to the riots, “we would have seen photos of policemen pasted on milk containers and listed as missing.” While the police effectively ran away from the violent rioters, they did return later to seize the guns and handcuff some of the owners of Korean stores who fought to defend their property. The city government even banned law-abiding citizens from buying bullets or picking up previously purchased weapons after the riot began.

Economist Morgan Reynolds noted:

“The looters and arsonists tended to leave houses and apartment buildings in the riot areas of Los Angeles alone — not out of compassion, but because, as a 13-year old neighborhood resident said, ‘The residents got guns and everybody knows that. Nobody’s going to mess with folks in houses.’”

The main effect of banning assault weapons is to give government an excuse to arrest or imprison millions of Americans while doing little or nothing to reduce crime. Regardless of what Congress intends in its assault-weapons ban, federal bureaucrats will stretch, twist, and contort the law to maximize their power over American citizens. For this reason alone, Congress should repeal the ban.

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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.