by Gun Owners of AmericaApril 1994
Senator Kennedy: "Are you going to make a recommendation to us to ban the manufacturing and production and the distribution of those weapons in the United States?" Mr. Bennett: "No, I'm not Senator. . . . We do not want to -- we've had this discussion before -- interfere with the legitimate rights of gun owners and collectors and hunters." --Discussion between Senator Edward Kennedy and Drug Czar William Bennett during September 7, 1989 session of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Some people think that the whole question of assault weapons is an easy one. "I don't need an AK-47 to shoot a deer," they say.
Actually, there is much more to the issue. Some essential facts have been lost in the supercharged rhetoric of gun control advocates.
Semi-auto "Assault Weapons" no Different from Many Hunting GunsThe primary fact is that a true "assault weapon" is a military firearm which can be fired either "automatically" (many shots per trigger pull) or "semi-automatically" (one shot per trigger pull). In other words, a true assault weapon is a machine gun which is already regulated by federal law.
The firearms that are covered by the so-called "assault weapons" laws are semi-automatic handguns, rifles and shotguns. Some of these firearms are made to look like a military-style weapon but are mechanically indistinguishable from the traditional-looking deer rifle.
As stated by Officer William McGrath in the Police Marksman:
These [assault rifles] are little different than the semi-automatic hunt-ing rifles that have been on the market since before World War II. The main difference between an assault rifle and a semi-automatic hunting rifle is that the assault rifle looks more "military". . . .(The term "assault" rifle is really a misnomer as a true assault rifle is a selective fire weapon capable of switching from fully automatic to semi automatic and back with the flip of a lever. There is already a ban on the impor- tation and manufacture for domestic sale of such weapons.) The charge that the assault rifle holds more rounds than a "legitimate" hunting rifle shows either a lack of knowledge or a deliberate twisting of the facts, as 10, 20 and 30 round magazines for "legitimate" hunting rifles have been on the market for decades without the world coming to an end. (1)Assault Weapons Bills Often Affect Traditional Hunting GunsThe Wall Street Journal has noted that national legislation banning these firearms could cover 20-30 million of them. Legal experts in the California Department of Justice did not believe it was possible to ban so-called "assault rifles" without banning all semi-automatics. (2)
Some states have passed legislation just this sweeping. In 1989, New Jersey State Senator Frank Graves introduced a bill which defined an assault weapon as any rifle or semi-automatic shotgun with a magazine capacity of 7 or more rounds or any semi-automatic handgun of 18 or more rounds. Any firearm which uses a detachable magazine technically has a "magazine capacity" of these large sounding numbers because it can accept a magazine of any capacity that fits that firearm.
Because of the wording used in this bill, and similar bills introduced in both the U.S. Congress and the state legislatures, a lot more people stood to lose their firearms than may have initially realized it. In this way, hunters and other sportsmen are misled into thinking that they have nothing to worry about.
By the time New Jersey passed a semi-automatic firearms ban, state officials estimated 300,000 firearms in the state were affected. (3) Owners of many rifles or carbines designed to accept a detachable magazine of more than 15 rounds, owners of shotguns which could hold over six rounds, and owners of handguns which were designed to accept a magazine over 17 rounds learned that they owned "assault weapons." (4)
By this definition, a Mossberg model 500 pump shotgun with eight-shot capacity, which is used by many police agencies and honest citizens, is transformed into a threat to society. So too is the Glock 17 pistol, which is rapidly becoming the choice of law enforcement for many of the same reasons which make it appealing for home defense--it is easy to maintain properly, easy to shoot and makes extra shots available if needed.
California did have an assault weapon incident before it passed a ban on 56 kinds of firearms in 1989. (5) A psychotic individual, who passed California's 15-day background check for the handgun he used to kill himself, used an AK-47 during the commission of a heinous crime.
Instead of drawing the lesson that gun control laws don't prevent crime, California's politicians decided to ban some rifles and shotguns and impose a waiting period on the sales of all other long guns. Unlike New Jersey's ban, Californians who owned banned weapons prior to a certain date would be allowed to keep them, so long as they registered them. (6)
Like many laws passed in haste to score political points, California's gun ban has run into problems. California mental health professionals criticized the new requirement that the mental health facilities submit the names of all patients to the state. Dr. Peter Gruenberg, president of the Southern California Psychiatric Society complained, "how paranoid do you have to be to see that as a possible infringement on your civil rights?" (7)
Police officers learned that because they had pled guilty to certain crimes years before, they could no longer carry guns as police officers, leading Frank Grimes, vice president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League to argue, "I don't believe it was ever the intent to take away the career of a peace officer in the pleading of a case eight or 10 years ago." (8)
By June 18, 1991, California Attorney General Dan Lungren felt compelled to warn California law enforcement officials to be careful in making "any seizure, arrest or prosecution" for possession of something "which may be viewed as an assault weapon, pending legislative action." (9)
Lungren noticed that many of the guns listed by trade name either did not exist at all or were so misrepresented that "without some new legislation to correct or clarify them, enforcement is not practical." (10)
Even before the Attorney General's attempt to clarify the law, most Californians who own banned firearms have not bothered to comply with it. Only 35,788 of the estimated 300,000-500,000 affected firearms were registered prior to the December 31, 1990 deadline for doing so. (11)
Semi-auto Ban Could Affect 50 Percent of Gun OwnersIn 1994, the U.S. Congress voted to ban scores of semi-automatic firearms. While the author of this ban, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), claimed the law would only ban 19 types of firearms, other government officials dispute this claim.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has admitted the law bans at least 45 guns. (12) And firearms experts have concluded that the law, which uses generic definitions to ban even more weapons, will actually cover more than 180 guns, thus affecting 50% of the gun owners in the country. (13)
This means that if a person fails to register a common hunting shotgun or rifle (not realizing that their gun is covered by the generic definitions in the bill) they will become a criminal and could lose their gun rights forever.
For example, the Feinstein ban covers any shotgun that holds 6 or more shells. Many shotguns only hold five, and thus their owners might not think to register their weapon. However, if British 2 inch short shells are used -- instead of the standard 2 3/4 inch or 3 inch shells -- these shotguns can then hold six rounds, and they have now become illegal firearms. (14)
Would officials interpret the law this way? They already have in New Jersey. State law bans any gun holding more than 15 rounds as an "assault weapon." This should have excluded the tubular-fed Remington 552 which only holds 15 .22 Long Rifle rounds. However, New Jersey officials have determined this rifle is an "assault weapon" because it will take 20 .22 Short rounds. (15)
Assault Weapons Not the Choice of CriminalsWhen the gun control side has it pointed out to them that their sweeping "assault weapons" bans will disarm large numbers of voters, they usually come back with a more limited bill which affects a certain number of scary-looking firearms that they claim are the choice of criminals.
Actually, police departments nationwide agree that criminals do not prefer these weapons:
* Police View: Over 100,000 police officers delivered a message to Congress in 1990 stating that only 2% to 3% of crimes are committed using a so-called "assault weapon." (16)
* Florida study: In Florida, only 3.5% of the guns recovered by the police were guns that could loosely be defined as "assault weapons." (17)
* California study: The California Department of Justice suppressed an official report showing that "assault weapons" comprised only 3.7% of the guns used in crime. (18) While the report was eventually leaked to the media, it received little press coverage.
* Virginia task force: A special task force on assault weapons found that only 2.8 percent of the homicides involved "assault-type weapons" during 1992. (19)
* Connecticut: The Department of Public Safety reports that only 1.79% of all confiscated firearms were "assault type weapons." (20)
* New Jersey: The New York Times reported that, "Although New Jersey's pioneering ban on military-style assault rifles was sold to the state as a crime-fighting measure, its impact on violence in the state . . . has been negligible, both sides agree." (21) Moreover, New Jersey police statistics show that only .026 of 1 percent of all crimes involve "assault rifles." (22)
* Nationwide: The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 1993 that violent criminals only carry or use a "military-type gun" in about one percent of the crimes nationwide. (23)
* Knives more deadly: According to the FBI, people have a much greater chance of being killed by a knife or a blunt object than by any kind of rifle, including an "assault rifle." (24) In Chicago, the chance is 67 times greater. That is, a person is 67 times more likely to be stabbed or beaten to death in Chicago than to be murdered by an "assault rifle." (25)
Col. Leonard Supenski of the Baltimore County Police claimed in 1991 that Maryland needs to ban these firearms because "assault weapons . . . have features that make them more threatening, particularly to police officers." (26) One would think that this threat would manifest itself in some quantifiable way -- like an increase in deaths of citizens and police officers caused by semi-automatic rifles. But that is not the case.
According to the FBI reports, only three brave Maryland police officers have been killed in the line of duty from 1989 to 1991. None of these murders were committed with an "assault weapon." (27)
While these tragedies grieve the community, it is hard to see how a proposed Maryland ban would have saved these officers lives. Semi-automatic "assault weapons" are simply not threatening police officers in Maryland.
In fact, these firearms are not menacing police officers nationwide. The FBI reports that no more than three officers will be killed in any one year by such guns. (28) And police officers are two to three times more likely to be killed by their own gun than by an "assault weapon." (29)
One can't have it both ways. If one wants to ban weapons that are dangerous to police, then begin by banning police officers' own weapons -- since these guns kill far more often than assault weapons. The same is true with knives and blunt objects. These instruments kill policemen far more often than these same semi-automatics. (30)
It is not without interest that memos were circulated within the California Department of Justice which suggested that the sponsor of the California ban, former Assemblyman Mike Roos (D) and others agreed not to include future studies on what firearms were used in crimes because these facts were "unlikely to support the theses on which the law was to be based." (31) No sense confusing legislators or the public with the facts.
Police Say Large Capacity Guns Better for Self-DefenseOn February 27, 1990, Col. Leonard Supenski of the Baltimore County Police testified before the Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee in favor of a "prohibition on the manufacture, commercial sale and private possession of assault-styled weapons by anyone except law enforcement and military personnel -- period. We also seek a ban on magazines of over 15 rounds capacity" (his emphasis according to his written testimony).
Yet a little over a month earlier, January 8, 1990, Col. Supenski testified as an expert witness in a case brought by Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse in their efforts to overturn the state Handgun Roster Board's approval of nearly all FIE-manufactured handguns as suitable for "legitimate sporting activities, self-protection, or law enforcement."
Supenski stated that his objection to a particular .38 caliber revolver was based upon the need to remove the cylinder to reload the firearm:
[It is difficult] to rapidly reload this weapon.... You've got six shots and that is it. . . . The homeowner always has to contemplate the possibility of reloading, and one of the reasons for that is the law requires you to retreat. Retreat to the point in your home where you no longer can retreat, and then you can stand your ground. Eighty percent of those [knock and rob entries of occupied homes] involve more than [one] individual. So the possibility of needing to reload rapidly and quickly is always present.FIE's attorney suggested during cross-examination that if reloading was so essential, "the best weapon to have would be an assault rifle with a 30-round magazine." Not wanting to be on record as justifying the ownership of AK-47's, Supenski replied that "no, the best weapon to have if you must have a weapon, is a shotgun."
The man officially in charge of crime prevention in Baltimore County, after discussing how you or I must be prepared to face a gang of hoods bursting into our living rooms at any moment, seems to think that private firearms ownership is an "if you must" option--nice to have but not a necessity.
Baltimore County residents now know that their police administrators believe six shots is too few and 15 shots is too many for civilians to have available to protect their loved ones. But when the police are allowed to choose their own guns, magazine capacity is a big selling point. "More" almost always equals "better."
Even in 1978, it was standard procedure for a Philadelphia, PA police "Stakeout Car" to contain two .30-'06 rifles, two 12-gauge shotguns, a .45 caliber Thompson submachine gun and a .30 caliber M-1 assault carbine. The cars also each contained 1,000 rounds of ammunition. (32)
The Santa Fe, New Mexico Police Department literally brags that it has more fully-automatic machine guns than the Los Angeles Police Department. (33)
If the police who visit dangerous neighborhoods for a few minutes feel that they need a high capacity semi-automatic to ensure their safety, what of the people who live in those same neighborhoods? Surely these worried citizens have even more right to own such a firearm.
Gun Owners of America Executive Director, Larry Pratt, knows all too well what goes through a citizen's mind during a time of danger. Pratt often reminds politicians that he learned the importance of individual gun ownership during the 1968 riots in Washington, D.C. As a man with a wife and young family, he had every reason to fear for their safety in a situation well beyond the capabilities of the local police.
Pratt purchased the best high-capacity semi-automatic firearm available to him at the time--a shotgun. Had some of the firearms which are on many banned lists today been available to him then, "I can assure you that I would have bought one."
Koreans Defend Themselves with "Assault Rifles" in Los Angeles RiotsMany of the guns which current "assault weapons" bans are targeting -- including the federal ban enacted in 1994 -- are the very guns with which the Korean merchants used to defend themselves during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. (34) Those firearms proved to be extremely useful to the Koreans. Their stores were left standing while other stores around them were burned to the ground.
The Korean merchants would agree that when one is facing mob violence and the police are nowhere to be found, one needs a gun that shoots more than just six bullets. A ban on large capacity semi-automatic firearms will only harm one's ability to defend himself and his family.
While most Americans are able to spend little time thinking of what the police can do to protect them during times of domestic tranquillity, there is no guarantee that this will always be the case. Citizens, like the police, have a right, and some would say a duty, to be able to prepare themselves against certain threats.
Assault-Type Semi-Automatics Often Less DangerousCalifornia's new assault weapons law bans firearms like the AK-47, which fires a 7.62x39 cartridge, and the UZI, which fires the same 9mm cartridge which more police departments are turning to for their departments' handguns. Neither of these bullets will do half as much damage on impact as the .30-'06 cartridge used by an ordinary deer rifle.
When firing comparable bullets, a 7.62x39 cartridge will generate only two-thirds of the muzzle velocity of a .30-'06 cartridge (2350 feet per second vs. 3140) and barely half of the muzzle energy (1495 foot-pounds vs. 2736). (35) Yet the .30-'06 was invented in 1906, long before the weaker cartridge used by the AK-47. (36)
Why would the military want to switch from a more powerful cartridge to a less powerful one, as it has done? Mr. J. Bolton Maddox, a retired Washington police captain, flatly stated that semi-automatics like the AK-47 were designed to wound, rather than kill. (37)
A well-placed shot from any firearm can be fatal. But obviously, a person has a better chance of surviving being shot by a bullet meant to wound a 170-pound man instead of a bullet meant to kill a 500-pound animal.
Politicians Using Assault Weapon Issue as Political PloyAdvocates of gun bans of this sort continue to claim that criminals and drug dealers prefer these firearms. The evidence suggests otherwise. Of the 72 murder weapons used in the District of Columbia in 1989 which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was asked to trace, precisely one was a rifle of any kind. (38) Of the 16,370 firearms seized in New York City in 1988, rifles of all kinds totaled 1,028. (39) (A firearm can be seized for any number of reasons in New York City, including a lack of the proper permit.)
Politicians have seized on this issue not because there is a great problem but precisely because this is a visible issue which appears to affect few people. They can appear to be "doing something" about crime without putting people in jail. Governor Mario Cuomo of New York berated the New York Legislature in 1989 for failing to pass an assault weapons ban in order to protect the police. But it turned out that no police officers were killed with an "assault weapon" during the entire previous year. (40)
Similarly, New Jersey Governor James Florio railroaded the legislature into passing a ban on semi-automatics in 1990, even though "assault weapons were not used in any murder in the state in 1989." (41) Furthermore, the New Jersey State Police admitted that at the time the ban was enacted, they did not have "complete figures on their [assault weapons] statewide use by criminals." (42) Yet despite this lack of hard evidence that there was any problem whatsoever, a law was passed which made criminals of the owners of 300,000 firearms. (43)
The events in New Jersey should remind us exactly what a ban on what many mistakenly believe to be a small group of firearms will mean in practice. Even though military-style semi-automatics are a relatively small part of the nation's firearms stock, a ban on such firearms inevitably must affect more traditional-looking rifles and shotguns. There is no way to mechanically differentiate the firearms proposed for registration or confiscation from the ordinary centerfire rifles honest citizens have used for sport and recreation for years.
Now that Congress feels it can ban some firearms, despite the clear wording of the Second Amendment, exactly what protection do other firearms have? Recall that New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan suggested recently that Congress could ban the sale of 9mm ammunition on the basis that they had already banned Teflon-coated bullets. (44)
This ban, it is safe to predict, will have no effect on criminal behavior, which will lead to cries for still more stringent gun control. New York City's original handgun permit law was sold to the public back in 1911 as a way to stop killing. The City murder rate leaped 18% over the next 12 months. The legislature decided the law was too weak 68 times over the next 70 years -- but fewer New Yorkers than ever feel safe in their homes, let alone their streets and parks. (45)
It is also worth recalling that federal income tax was once a temporary measure that affected relatively few people. The dangers of most legislation become evident only after time.
Those who urge compromise on this issue forget that neither the National Rifle Association nor Gun Owners of America is likely to be allowed to decide how the compromise legislation will be enforced.
A member asked Gun Owners of America founder and chairman, Senator H.L. Richard- son to investigate what he believed was police abuse of the California assault weapons ban. The member was shocked to learn that the police were being told if any homes in a neighborhood they were visiting contained registered "assault weapons." In one case, officers investigating a man sleeping in a car were told that a hazard (a legally owned and registered AR-15) existed at the address the car was parked in front of.
Senator Richardson, outraged at this abuse of the privacy rights of citizens accused of absolutely no crime, filed a formal complaint with California's Chief Deputy Attorney General, David Stirling. Stirling's response:
The legislature has not specifically limited the use of this information and accordingly this Department does not believe it has the authority to place limitations on its use which were not imposed by the legislature. In other words, unless the government is specifically told not to do something, it feels free to do what it wants. Silence is permissive. Yet California gun owners are not allowed to interpret silence as an argument for protecting their rights. The referee is by no means neutral in California or elsewhere. Often he is all but wearing the uniform of our opponents' team.
Legal Government Record Keeping Often Breeds Illegal Record KeepingThe government has shown itself willing to flout even clear prohibitions on certain conduct if it chooses to do so. California resident Mike Smith learned this the hard way in January of 1991.
Smith was stopped by the police after three hours of shooting practice near the Santa Rosa Mountains. The area he had chosen for his practice turned out to have been an unmarked game reserve in which any shooting was banned.
The Bureau of Land Management Officer involved in Smith's arrest took an interest in his Springfield SAR-48 rifle. Under a new California law, the rifle in question had to be registered. He called in the make, model and serial number of the rifle.
It turned out that the rifle was not registered. But the police had on file who the rifle was sold to, when it was sold, and from what store it was sold. Evidently, the BATF had illegally transferred to the police already illegally obtained data from California gun stores.
Gun Owners Legal Assistance Program is aware that BATF has attempted to compile a list of names of those who have purchased firearms covered by the state's new gun law. BATF has gone to individual gun stores and copied the names and addresses of those who bought "assault rifles." This "forward tracing" is illegal under federal law.
Military-Type Firearms Are Protected by 2nd AmendmentAssault weapons legislation not only disarms honest hunters and sportsmen while not further troubling the thug and his already illegal and far more deadly sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun, but it also cuts out the heart of the Second Amendment to our Constitution.
The Second Amendment was enacted not to protect hunters and sportsmen, but to ensure that the government never had a monopoly of force it could use to oppress the citizenry. Events not too long ago in Panama, China and the Soviet Union should remind us once again that when a government has a monopoly on the means of effective defense -- like semi-automatic firearms -- there is no check upon its appetites.
Even in this country, government officials can go too far. Consider a small sampling of abuses that have occurred in this decade alone:
* In 1992, government agents murdered a mother and son in the mountains of Idaho. The father, Randy Weaver, and a friend had used a deer rifle even more powerful than a standard military rifle to shoot back at the agents. (Before he was killed, the son had also used a semi-automatic military type rifle to return the agents' fire.) Weaver and his friend killed one agent, although a jury later acquitted both of these men, deeming they had used justifiable force in self-defense. (46)
* New York City and Chicago have begun confiscating firearms of law-abiding citizens, report newspapers in each city. In New York City, officials are using registration lists to identify gun owners, while in Chicago, police are making random searches in apartment complexes. (47)
Noted constitutional scholar Stephen Halbrook has documented that "[t]he British attempt to seize or destroy the arms and ammunition at Lexington triggered the revolutionary shot heard around the world." (48) Some of those arms were among the finest available at the time and helped win America her independence from tyranny. The British could not understand why the colonists wanted to keep their military-style flintlock muskets since the British Army was there to "protect" them. Today, the same question is asked about the paramilitary assault rifles owned by hundreds of thousands of Americans.
The issue has remained fundamentally the same over the years. The Founding Fathers in their wisdom tried to guarantee that no future tyrant, be he domestic or foreign, could impose his will upon a helpless population.
Those who argue that the authors of the Second Amendment did not intend to protect the right of ordinary American citizens to own military-style weapons must contend with the fact that the same Congress which passed the Second Amendment also passed the Militia Act of 1792. This law required every free male between the ages of 18 and 44 to own the same type of rifle that was used by soldiers in the Revolutionary War and to own ammunition as well.
The Supreme Court confirmed this in 1939. The Court stated in U.S. v. Miller:
The Militia comprised all males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense . . . [and that] when called for service, these men were expected to appear bearing arms supplied by themselves and of the kind in common use at the time. (49)Thus, military-styled firearms are constitutionally protected firearms for individual citizens. The Court's reference to the militia is not a reference to the National Guard but "all males" who are physically able to defend the country.
As stated by a U.S. Senate Subcommittee in 1982:
There can be little doubt from [the Militia Act of 1792] that when the Congress and the people spoke of a "militia," they had reference to the traditional concept of the entire populace capable of bearing arms, and not to any formal group such as what is today called the National Guard. The purpose was to create an armed citizenry, such as the political theorists at the time considered essential to ward off tyranny. (50)This nation has enjoyed 200 years of freedom because, like the Swiss and the Israelis, individuals have the right to bear arms that can be used effectively against would-be tyrants, both foreign and domestic. That is a far surer foundation for our freedoms over the next 200 years than some bland assurances that we have nothing to fear and never will.