Gun Bans Demise Places Focus on States
By Kathleen Hunter, Staff Writer
In 45 states, it will again become legal at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday (Sept. 14) to manufacture and sell semiautomatic assault weapons, thanks to the expiration at midnight of a decade-old, largely popular federal ban on the military-style firearms.
The gun lobby sees the ban's expiration as the long overdue demise of an ineffective law, while gun-control advocates fear a rise in gun-related crime and vow to push for an even stricter nationwide ban, pointing to California as a possible model.
Assault-weapons ban legislation, which largely stalled this year in statehouses across the country, could be jump-started in coming months if Congress doesn't act to reinstate the ban.
The impending sunset of the federal law seems to have caught some state lawmakers off guard.
In many states, legislators believed the federal ban would be renewed and were hesitant to pass state-level restrictions to replace it, said Julissa Jose, who tracks state legislation for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the nation's largest gun-control advocacy group.
"It was very tough for us to convince legislators that the federal law really was going to expire and they needed to do something in their own state," Jose said.
The 1994 law, which recent polls indicate is supported by at least two-thirds of Americans, outlaws 19 types of military-style semiautomatic assault weapons as well as high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Currently, only California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York ban assault weapons. Maryland and Hawaii ban assault pistols.
Massachusetts' ban originally was slated to expire with the federal prohibition, but a law enacted in July decouples the state-level ban from the federal law.
Maryland is the state that came the closest this year to passing a broad ban on assault weapons, but intense lobbying by gun-rights advocate and opposition from Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R) stalled the bill in committee.
Meanwhile, gun manufacturers in much of the country have their sights set on a new market of previously outlawed firearms.
Illinois-based ArmaLite, for example, plans to waste no time shipping newly legal semiautomatic rifles to eager customers who have already ordered and paid for them as part of ArmaLite's "Prepaid Pre-ban Rifle Program."
Illinois currently has no state-level ban on assault weapons, although Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) earlier this year called on legislators to pass one.
ArmaLite guarantees participants in the program that a previously illegal semiautomatic assault rifle will be shipped to them "immediately upon expiration" of the federal law.
"Don't delay ... prepare for possible AW expiration today with ArmaLite," president Mark Westrom urges on the company's Web site.
Westrom said that only a small number of people - 75 to 80 nationwide - have ordered the guns and that the pre-payment program is simply a way to meet customers' requests without running the risk that the company will be left holding useless merchandise if the ban doesn't expire.
"Anytime there is a new model coming out - a car or anything - there's always people who want to place their orders early," he said.
ArmaLite is not alone. Gun manufacturers and dealers nationwide are poised to pounce on a newly legal market the moment the federal ban sunsets, according to a recent report from the Consumer Federation of America, a consumer-advocacy group.
Blagojevich in March threatened to veto gun-friendly legislation unless state lawmakers pass a ban on assault weapons. In August, the governor vetoed a bill that would have allowed homeowners to claim self defense or defense of others if they shot an intruder.
Spokeswoman Rebecca Rausch said the governor's veto was unrelated to his call for a statewide assault weapons ban, but Rausch said Blagojevich still would like to see lawmakers move on the issue.
"If the Illinois Legislature sends the governor a bill extending the ban, the governor would gladly sign it," Rausch said.
Illinois was one of 10 states (others are Georgia, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania) where assault-weapons legislation languished this year.
In addition to disbelief that Congress would fail to renew the ban, pressure from the powerful gun lobby also helped stall proposals in states.
National Rifle Association spokeswoman Kelly Hobbs said assault-weapons bans are ineffective and only punish law-abiding gun owners. If the federal ban expires, Hobbs said the N.R.A. would work to make sure state-level bans don't replace it.
"The assault-weapons ban is bad policy, whether at the federal or state levels," Hobbs said.
While even the ban's supporters agree that the law's loopholes are significant, groups such as the Brady Campaign, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Violence Policy Center say weapons bans are important tools for battling gun-related crime.
Kristen Rand, legislative director for the Violence Policy Center, which works to educate people on the dangers of guns, said that the federal law needs strengthening and that Congress should look to California's law as a model.
California passed the nation's first ban on assault weapons in 1989 after a man armed with a semiautomatic assault rifle fired more than 100 bullets into a schoolyard in Stockton, Calif., killing five children and wounding 30 others. The California law is the nation's strictest; it outlaws more than 200 types of firearms.
"California got it right, and that's why we support legislation at the federal level that's modeled on California law," Rand said.
Late last month, the California Legislature scored another first by passing a ban on the possession and sale of the .50-caliber BMG rifle. If Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) signs the bill (he indicated during his campaign last year that he would), California would become the first state to outlaw the rifles, which opponents refer to as "sniper rifles" and argue are particularly dangerous because they have armor-piercing capabilities.
A similar bill in New York that would have confiscated the rifles from current owners gained little traction there. The California law allows current owners to keep their guns, but requires that they register the weapons and bars them from selling the guns to others.
While political pundits earlier in the year speculated that the ban's scheduled sunset less than two months before the Nov. 2 election could transform gun control into a late-breaking issue in the presidential and other national and state-level campaigns, so far, that hasn't happened.
Complicated election-year politics might be partially to blame for keeping gun control largely off the political radar during the 2004 election cycle.
President Bush has said he would sign a bill extending the ban, but Democratic members of Congress say the president has not gone far enough to push the issue to a vote. Democratic presidential challenger John Kerry also supports extending the federal ban.