Assault weapons are increasingly being perceived by legislators, police organizations, handgun restriction advocates, and the press as a public health threat. As these weapons come to be associated with drug traffickers, paramilitary extremists, and survivalists, their television and movie glamour is losing its lustre to a violent reality.
Because of this fact, assault weapons are quickly becoming the leading topic of America’s gun control debate and will most likely remain the leading gun control issue for the near future. Such a shift will not only damage America’s gun lobby, but strengthen the handgun restriction lobby for the following reasons:
- It will be a new topic in what has become to the press and public an “old” debate.Although handguns claim more than 20,000 lives a year, the issue of handgun restriction consistently remains a non-issue with the vast majority of legislators, the press, and public. The reasons for this vary: the power of the gun lobby; the tendency of both sides of the issue to resort to sloganeering and pre-packaged arguments when discussing the issue; the fact that until an individual is affected by handgun violence he or she is unlikely to work for handgun restrictions; the view that handgun violence is an “unsolvable” problem; the inability of the handgun restriction movement to organize itself into an effective electoral threat; and the fact that until someone famous is shot, or something truly horrible happens, handgun restriction is simply not viewed as a priority. Assault weapons—just like armor-piercing bullets, machine guns, and plastic firearms—are a new topic. The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun—can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons. In addition, few people can envision a practical use for these weapons.
- Efforts to stop restrictions on assault weapons will only further alienate the police from the gun lobby.Until recently, police organizations viewed the gun lobby in general, and the NRA in particular, as a reliable friend. This stemmed in part from the role the NRA played in training officers and its reputation regarding gun safety and hunter training. Yet, throughout the 1980s, the NRA has found itself increasingly on the opposite side of police on the gun control issue. Its opposition to legislation banning armor-piercing ammunition, plastic handguns, and machine guns, and its drafting of and support for the McClure/Volkmer handgun decontrol bill, burned many of the bridges the NRA had built throughout the past hundred years. As the result of this, the Law Enforcement Steering Committee was formed. The Committee now favors such restriction measures as waiting periods with background check for handgun purchase and a ban on machine guns and plastic firearms. If police continue to call for assault weapons restrictions, and the NRA continues to fight such measures, the result can only be a further tarnishing of the NRA’s image in the eyes of the public, the police, and NRA members. The organization will no longer be viewed as the defender of the sportsman, but as the defender of the drug dealer.
- Efforts to restrict assault weapons are more likely to succeed than those to restrict handguns.Although the majority of Americans favor stricter handgun controls, and a consistent 40 percent of Americans favor banning the private sale and possession of handguns, many Americans do believe that handguns are effective weapons for home self-defense and the majority of Americans mistakenly believe that the Second Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the individual right to keep and bear arms. Yet, many who support the individual’s right to own a handgun have second thoughts when the issue comes down to assault weapons. Assault weapons are often viewed the same way as machine guns and “plastic” firearms—a weapon that poses such a grave risk that it’s worth compromising a perceived constitutional right.
Although the opportunity to restrict assault weapons exists, a question remains for the handgun restriction movement: How? Defining an assault weapon—in legal terms—is not easy. It’s not merely a matter of going after guns that are “black and wicked looking.” Although those involved in the debate know the weapons being discussed, it’s extremely difficult to develop a legal definition that restricts the availability of assault weapons without affecting legitimate semi-automatic guns. Most likely, any definition would focus on magazine capacity, weapon configuration, muzzle velocity, the initial purpose for which the weapon (or its full-auto progenitor) was developed, convertibility, and possible sporting applications. Any law based on this definition would, however, need to have a clause to excuse legitimate semi-automatic weapons that would inadvertently fall under it. And although legislation could be passed that would ban specific weapons, the world’s arms manufacturers are expert at producing weapons that follow the letter, but not the intent, of the law. This often results in products that are virtually identical to the restricted weapon, yet different enough to remain on the market.
Yet, the framework for restricting assault weapons already exists. On the federal level, ATF currently excludes from import handguns recognized as Saturday Night Specials. This is done by application of criteria designed by the agency that takes into account such things as barrel length, caliber, quality of materials, safety devices, and other factors. Any gun that does not meet the importation threshold cannot be sold in the United States. Any manufacturer whose product is refused for import can challenge the decision in federal court. Criteria to identify and categorize assault weapons could be developed by ATF and applied toward restricting the availability of both foreign- and domestically-produced assault weapons.
The state of Maryland has taken a similar approach in banning the sale of Saturday Night Specials. The 1988 Maryland law established a nine-member board responsible for creating a roster of permitted handguns. The nine members of the board include: the superintendent of the state police; representatives of the Maryland States’ Attorney’s Association, Maryland Association of Chiefs of Police, Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, the National Rifle Association, and a Maryland gun manufacturer; and three citizen board members to be determined by the governor. After January 1, 1990, the law requires that no person in Maryland may: manufacture a handgun not on the Handgun Roster or sell or offer to sell any handgun not on the Handgun Roster that was manufactured after January 1, 1985. In determining whether a handgun has a legitimate use and can therefore be placed on the roster, the board will consider: concealability; ballistic accuracy; weight; quality of materials; quality of manufacture; and reliability as to safety, caliber, and detectability by standard security devices used at airports and courthouses. States could develop similar rosters to ban the sale of assault weapons.
Since passage of the Maryland law, the NRA has collected enough signatures of Maryland residents to bring the measure to referendum on the November 1988 ballot. The NRA’s opposition to such a panel is not surprising. The organization fears giving the government, at any level, the power to restrict the availability of firearms—conjuring up images of a “gun czar.” And although such proposals would solve the definitional problems posed by assault weapons, it would guarantee fierce opposition from the gun lobby.
The success of any proposed legislation to restrict assault weapons and their accessories depends not only on whether the American public pays attention to the topic, but agrees that these products are dangerous. Obviously, some aspects of America’s fascination with assault weapons and their accessories are here to stay. Publications are clearly protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution. Yet the weapons themselves, and accessories such as laser sights and grenades requiring only the explosive charge, can be restricted and even banned at the local, state, or federal level. The fact that assault weapons are increasingly being equated with America’s drug trade may play a major role in motivating the public to call for their restriction. Yet, recognizing the country’s fascination for exotic weaponry and the popular images and myths associated with guns, it may require a crisis of a far greater proportion before any action is taken.
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