John Lott: City’s assault-weapons ban ineffective and unneeded

By John R. Lott. Jr.
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Published Wednesday, July 20, 2005 at Columbus Dispatch

When the federal assault-weapons ban expired in September, its fans claimed that gun crimes and police killings would surge dramatically. Sarah Brady, one of the nation’s leading gun-control advocates, warned, "Our streets are going to be filled with AK-47s and Uzis." The Columbus City Council racheted-up the rhetoric, claiming the banned guns are "the weapons of choice for terrorists."

Well, more than 10 months have gone by and the only casualty has been gun-controllers’ credibility. Letting the law expire only showed its uselessness. In fact, the FBI announced last month that the number of murders nationwide fell by 3.6 percent last year, the first drop since 1999. Murders declined in both halves of last year from year earlier levels.

Even more interesting, the seven states that have their own assault weapons bans saw a smaller drop in murders last year than the 43 states without such laws, suggesting that doing away with the ban actually reduced crime. States with bans averaged a 2.4 percent decline in murders; in three states with bans, the number of murders rose. States without bans saw murders fall by more than 4 percent.

And the drop was not just limited to murder. Overall, violent crime also declined last year, according to the FBI, and the complete statistics carry another surprise for gun-control advocates: Guns are used in murder and robbery more frequently then in rapes and aggravated assaults, but after the assault-weapons ban ended, the number of murders and robberies fell more than the number of rapes and aggravated assaults.

It’s instructive to remember just how passionately the media hyped the dangers of "sunsetting" the ban. It was even part of the presidential campaign: "Kerry blasts lapse of assault-weapons ban," one headline said. A search of a computer database of news stories turned up more than 560 articles in the first two weeks of September that expressed fear about ending the ban. Yet the news that murder and other violent crimes declined last year despite the ban ending produced just one very brief paragraph in an insider political newsletter.

Despite the media bias, the irrelevance of the assault-weapons bans to crime rates was to be expected. Not a single published academic study has ever shown that these bans have reduced any type of violent crime. Even research funded by the Clinton administration didn’t find that it reduced violent crime.

Why? Simple: There’s nothing unique about the guns that these laws ban. The phrase assault weapon conjures up images of the fully automatic weapons used by the military, but the weapons in the ban actually function the same as any semiautomatic hunting rifle. They often fire the exact same bullets with the exact same rapidity and produce the exact same damage.

Yet, while this lesson has been learned every place else, Columbus is the only jurisdiction in the country to pass a new assault-weapon ban after the federal law sunset. Even gun-control-friendly states such as Illinois and New York saw new assault-weapon ban bills die in their legislatures this year. Nor have other cities joined in.

In addition, the Columbus ban goes much further than the old federal assault-weapons ban it is claims to replace. Indeed, in some ways, the law is much more restrictive than even Washington, D.C.’s regulations on rifles. The law bans any semiautomatic rifle with a detachable magazine and a stock covering the barrel that allows the "bearer to hold the firearm with the nontrigger hand without being burned." That covers virtually all semiautomatic rifles.

There are a few guns, such as the M1 Garrand used by soldiers during World War II, that have a fixed magazine, but it is hard to think of any massproduced rifle that isn’t covered by the second restriction. The law effectively bans any mass-produced semiautomatic hunting rifle on the market.

While the federal ban proved useless, Columbus’ third attempted gun ban seems even more destined for failure. Only law-abiding citizens would obey the ban. And even if preventing criminals from getting these rifles actually mattered, it is hard to believe that a citywide ban would actually prevent them from getting access. Disarming the innocent hardly seems an effective way of reducing crime.

The Columbus law is so extreme that Ohio Rep. James Aslanides, R-Coshocton, announced that he will introduce legislation that forbids cities from enacting their own gun laws. Most states have some restrictions on locally-enacted gun regulations.

Even for lawmakers, predictions must eventually matter. If legislators can’t see that these laws have failed to deliver as promised, it’s hard to know when facts will make a difference.

John R. Lott Jr. is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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