Assault Weapons Ban Triggers High-Caliber Fight
By Kavan Peterson, Staff Writer
Worried that Congress will fail to renew a decade-old ban on assault weapons before it expires in September, some state lawmakers want to outlaw the military-style firearms before they hit the shelves of a sporting goods store near you.
That won't happen without a fight, however, say staunch gun rights supporters such as the National Rifle Association who promise to derail any attempt to ban assault weapons at the state level.
A high-caliber fight over the possible demise of the 1994 federal assault weapons ban now is spreading from Congress to state legislatures around the country and could thrust gun control into a late-breaking issue in the fall presidential race.
So far, the gun lobby is winning.
In Maryland - considered one of the most pro-gun control states in the nation supporters of a blocked assault weapons ban have admitted their proposal is all but dead, with less than a week to go before the Legislature adjourns April 12. After a similar measure failed in Illinois, Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich recently threatened to veto a popular pro-gun bill if it does not include an assault weapons ban.
Proposed measures in Illinois, Maryland and seven other states would ban the manufacture, import and sale of assault-style firearms and high-capacity ammunition magazines outlawed by the 1994 federal ban. Bills in Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Ohio and Pennsylvania were drafted to go into effect when the federal prohibition on 19 named firearms expires September 13.
"We are in no way trying to take anyone's guns away," said Maryland Delegate Neil Quinter (D), who admitted that his proposal to ban assault weapons was probably doomed. "This is a common sense measure that will keep AK-47s from returning to our streets."
Democrats command a large majority in Maryland's Legislature, but the proposed assault weapons legislation was successfully blocked in committee because of intense lobbying from gun rights supporters and opposition from Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich.
"The NRA won this battle and the citizens of Maryland lost," said Maryland Sen. Rob Garagiola (D), who sponsored an assault weapons ban that was voted down in a Senate committee last week.
California began the push to ban assault weapons after a man armed with a semiautomatic version of the AK-47 fired more than 100 bullets in an elementary school in Stockton, Calif., in 1989, killing 5 children and wounding 30 others. California adopted the nation's strictest assault weapons ban that year, outlawing more than 200 types of firearms.
State bans have since been adopted by Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York, although Massachusetts' ban would expire with the federal law if it is not renewed. Maryland and Hawaii have outlawed assault pistols.
Maryland lawmakers' inability to bring a proposed assault weapons ban to a vote in the Free State signals trouble for similar efforts in other states.
Despite pressure from Gov. Blagojevich, Illinois lawmakers want to wait until September 13 to see whether Congress actually lets the federal ban expire, observers say. Legislators in Georgia, Maine and Pennsylvania say they also wish to avoid a contentious debate over gun control if possible, and have opted for a wait-and-see approach.
"There's a sense of alarm among certain lawmakers, but at the same time a majority of (Illinois) legislators want to see what happens at the federal level before addressing this," Thom Mannard, executive director of Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, said.
Despite President George W. Bush's support for extending the 1994 federal assault weapons ban, Republican leaders in control of Congress have vowed to let the contentious gun control measure sunset this fall. An attempt to renew the ban failed in the U.S. Senate earlier this month.
With the ban set to expire just two months before Election Day, political analysts say it could force both Bush and the presumed Democratic nominee John Kerry, who also supports the federal assault weapons ban, to take stronger positions on gun control.
National gun control advocates say that state lawmakers and local law enforcement all over the country don't know the federal ban is expiring or can't believe that Congress and the president would fail to renew it.
"The biggest impediment we've faced is disbelief that Congress is going to let the federal law expire," said Luis Tolley, director of state legislation for the Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence, the nation's largest gun control advocacy group.
The federal ban specifically outlaws 19 named firearms, including the Russian AK-47 assault rifle and Israeli Uzi, and any semiautomatic firearm that has two or more "military-style" features, such as a pistol grip, folding stock, grenade launcher or muzzle shroud. The ban also outlaws high-capacity ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 bullets.
Although polls indicate that a majority of Americans support the federal assault weapons ban, there is no consensus among lawmakers that banning such weapons is necessary or effective.
Liberals say Republicans would allow "weapons of war" to fall into the hands of criminals and terrorists bent on killing innocent people, and conservatives say Democrats are singling out firearms that pose no threat in the hands of law-abiding citizens.
"Banning so-called assault weapons has absolutely nothing to do with reducing crime and everything to do with hindering the rights of gun owners," said Kelley Hobbs of the National Rifle Association, which fiercely opposes any attempts to restrict gun ownership.
Critics say the ban is ineffective because at least eight of the named guns - including AK-47s and Uzis still would be illegal under separate laws if the ban expires. In addition, gun manufacturers have been producing "post-ban" replicas of nearly every other banned weapon by making slight cosmetic changes or simply changing the model name. The outlawed TEC-DC9 assault pistol, for example, was cynically renamed the TEC-AB-10, meaning "after-ban", and subsequently was used in the 1999 Columbine school shooting in Littleton, Colo. Gun makers have produced 175 other similar versions of the pistol, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
"The spin on this (by the gun control supporters) has the public thinking that we're talking about fully-automatic machine guns," which have been banned in the U.S. since 1934, said Maryland Republican Delegate Donald Dwyer, Jr., who opposes adopting a state assault weapons ban.
"What they call assault weapons' fire single shots same as (semiautomatic) hunting rifles, and we have no statistics to show us they pose a public threat," he said.
The effectiveness of the ban is highly debated. A Congress-mandated study is to be released this July and will report that police requests to trace assault weapons have decreased 66 percent since 1994, double the decline for other firearm traces. But the large decline belies the fact that assault weapons are rarely used in crimes, said Christopher Koper, a criminology researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who co-authored the study for the U.S. Department of Justice.
"Determining how many murders or shootings might be prevented by banning assault weapons might be too difficult to determine because these weapons really aren't used in many crimes," Koper said.
The upcoming study also will undermine the effectiveness of the ban on high-capacity magazines, a central element of the gun law intended to prevent multiple murders. According to Koper, there is no evidence that access or use of such magazines has declined.
"Presumably, if the ban is in place long enough, the source of high-capacity magazines will dry up, but it's hard to predict how long that might take because there were millions of these magazines produced right before the ban went into effect (in 1994)," he said.