The Wall Street Journal
Copyright (c) 1994, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.
Thursday, January 6, 1994
The Assault on Assault Weapons
By James Bovard

President Clinton is backing legislation that could lead to the
confiscation of tens of millions of private rifles, shotguns and
pistols. Though the bill Mr. Clinton supports purportedly targets
only "assault weapons," the loose definitions and expansive goals of
the antigun lobby will almost certainly lead to a vast increase in
the number of weapons to be banned.

In November, the Senate passed an amendment to its crime bill
that would ban ownership of assault weapons, and a House-Senate
conference in the coming weeks will decide the provision's fate. Mr.
Clinton, Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh
have all come out in favor of banning assault weapons. Others are
jumping on the bandwagon: Gov. William Weld has endorsed a ban in
Massachusetts, and Gov. Mario Cuomo is calling a special session of
the New York state Legislature on Martin Luther King Day for the
purpose of considering banning assault weapons. In recent years,
three states and dozens of cities and counties have banned or
severely restricted the ownership of assault weapons.

According to the Defense Department, an assault weapon is a rifle
that is capable of both automatic (machine-gun) fire and
semiautomatic (one-shot-per-trigger-pull) fire. But most bans focus
on semiautomatic rifles, and media coverage routinely confuses
semiautomatic with automatic machine guns, ownership of which has
been severely restricted by the federal government since 1934.

As a result of muddled definitions of assault weapons, bans on
such guns have been extremely arbitrary. In 1989, California banned
the sale or transfer of assault weapons and required all existing
owners to register their guns. The California law was very poorly
drafted: California Attorney General Dan Lungren later admitted that
some of the gun models banned by the California Legislature did not
exist. San Francisco lawyer Don Kates suggested that legislators, in
compiling the list of prohibited guns, appeared to have selected
from "some picture book . . . of mislabeled firearms they thought
looked evil."

The vast majority of Californians did not register their guns.
Thus the law may have created as many as 300,000 new criminals.
According to Michael McNulty, chairman of the private California
Organization for Public Safety, "We estimate that hundreds of
citizens have been arrested and prosecuted for firearms not on the
regulated list." In numerous cases, police carrying out searches of
people's homes have seized weapons they allege to be illegal assault
weapons -- and then have refused to return them even after receiving
proof that the guns are not legally banned under California law.

The assault weapon ban was enacted after politicians claimed that
such guns were a grave public menace. But Torrey Johnson of the
California Bureau of Forensic Services concluded in a confidential
report: "It is obvious to those of us in the state crime lab system
that the presumption that 'assault weapons' constitute a major
threat in California is absolutely wrong."

Similar travesties have happened elsewhere. In 1989, the Denver
City Council banned Denver residents from owning or selling
so-called assault weapons. (Residents could apply for police
permission to continue possessing weapons obtained prior to the date
of the ban.) Denver even banned residents from using assault weapons
for self-defense in their own homes -- as if government officials
sought to prevent citizens from having an unfair advantage over
burglars or rapists who break into their homes. In February of last
year a local court struck down the law as unconstitutionally vague
and a violation of the state constitution.

In 1990, New Jersey banned ownership of so-called assault rifles.
Gov. Jim Florio declaimed: "There are some weapons that are just so
dangerous that society has a right and the obligation even to take
those weapons out of circulation." Mr. Clinton praised the New
Jersey law as a model for the nation. But the ban was so extensive
that even some models of BB guns were outlawed. Joseph Constance,
deputy chief of the Trenton, N.J., police department, told the
Senate Judiciary Committee in August of last year: "Since police
started keeping statistics, we now know that assault weapons
are/were used in an underwhelming .026 of 1% of crimes in New
Jersey. This means that my officers are more likely to confront an
escaped tiger from the local zoo than to confront an assault rifle
in the hands of a drug-crazed killer on the streets." New Jersey has
an estimated 300,000 owners of "assault weapons," each potentially
facing up to five years in prison for violating the state law if
they do not turn in their guns.

New York City required rifle owners to register their guns in
1967. City Council members at that time promised that the
registration lists would not be used for a general confiscation of
law-abiding citizens' weapons. Roughly one million New Yorkers were
obliged to register with police.

In 1991, Mayor David Dinkins railroaded a bill through the City
Council banning possession of many semiautomatic rifles, claiming
that they were actually assault weapons. Scores of thousands of
residents who had registered in 1967 and scrupulously obeyed the law
were stripped of their right to own their guns. Police are now using
the registration lists to crack down on gun owners. Police sent out
threatening letters, and policemen have gone knocking on doors
demanding that people surrender their guns, according to Stephen
Halbrook, a lawyer and author of two books on gun control.

Mr. Halbrook notes that the New York ban "prohibits so many guns
that they don't even know how many are prohibited" and that the law
is so vague that the city police "arbitrarily apply it to almost any
gun owner." Jerold Levine, counsel to the New York Rifle
Association, observed: "Tens of thousands of New York veterans who
kept their rifles from World War II or the Korean War have been
turned into felons as a result of this law. Even the puny target
shooting guns in Coney Island arcades have been banned under the new
law because their magazines hold more than five rounds."

Many local and state assault weapons laws, as well as the bill
that the Senate passed in November, contain provisions apparently
written by people spooked after watching too many Arnold
Schwarzenegger movies. The Senate bill bans guns that have
grenade-launcher and bayonet-mount attachments. But neither the
Justice Department nor the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms
could provide a single example of either grenade launchers or
bayonets attached to assault weapons being used in any violent crime
in the U.S. (Grenade launchers were used by the FBI in their final
assault in Waco, but the FBI would not be affected by the bill.)

The assault-weapon amendment, sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein
(D., Calif.), is widely perceived as a "foot in the door" to far
more extensive gun bans. When a Christian Science Monitor reporter
asked Ms. Feinstein why her amendment did not ban all semiautomatic
guns, she replied: "We couldn't have gotten it through Congress."
Rep. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) declared: "We'll be carrying the
Feinstein banner in the House when it comes to semiautomatic
weapons." If all semiautomatic guns were banned, the federal
government could confiscate 35 million weapons. The Clinton
administration has tentatively embraced a proposal to require all
gun owners to be licensedwhich could be a prelude to the type of gun
confiscations now going on in New York.

Assault weapons laws resemble hate speech laws. Hate speech laws
usually begin by targeting a few words that almost no one approves.
Once the system for controlling and punishing "hate speech" is put
into place, there is little or nothing to stop it from expanding to
punish more and more types of everyday speech. Similarly, once an
assault weapons law is on the books, there is little to prevent
politicians from vastly increasing the number of weapons banned
under the law.

The main effect of banning assault weapons is to give government
an excuse to arrest or imprison millions of Americans while doing
little or nothing to reduce crime. America has a limited number of
police, and politicians must decide who the real public enemies are.
If Mr. Clinton signs an assault weapons ban, it could signal the
start of an attack on gun owners' constitutional rights that could
far surpass all previous gun bans.


Mr. Bovard is the author of the forthcoming "Lost Rights: The
Destruction of American Liberty" (St. Martin's, April 1994).