Freedom Line

Whether or not Congress renews the “assault weapons” ban, the American people deserve an honest and open debate on the law and its effects.


‘Assault Weapons’ Bait-and-Switch

By Christopher J. Armstrong

On Capitol Hill, an effort is underway to renew the “assault weapons” ban passed as part of the Federal Violent Crimes Act of 1994, set to expire in September of 2004.  The debate is being framed — most notably in the media — with images of villainous machine-guns and talk of automatic weapons “flooding our streets.”

But while such coverage is certainly inflammatory, it completely misses the mark since the so-called “assault weapons” ban has absolutely nothing to do with the Rambo-style machine guns being used to frighten the public into bad policy.  In fact, none of the prominently displayed fully automatic firearms are even mentioned under the provision currently being considered.

This fraudulent misrepresentation, which is being passed off as “informative political debate,” does a great disservice to American political discourse.  Such media sensationalism — or worse yet, bias — is designed to exploit fear of violent crime, while doing nothing to accurately educate the public about the serious policy issues at stake.  Dishonesty may drive up both political approval and television viewer ratings, but its end result is the propagation of popular misunderstanding and misguided policy.

In truth, the proposed assault weapons ban targets only certain semi-automatic firearms, not the fully automatic guns that have made so many appearances in recent news coverage.  Moreover, the ban draws arbitrary distinctions based upon little more than a gun’s cosmetic appearance, while failing to even consider the weapon’s functional use or relationship to violent crime.

The class of weapons targeted, semi-automatic firearms, includes the vast majority of guns and is defined by the ability to fire one bullet every time the trigger is pulled.  Within this virtually all-inclusive definition, the ban arbitrarily outlaws guns based on superficial features, such as whether the gun has bayonet mounts or, on a handgun, magazines that attach anywhere other than the pistol grip. Such distinctions are especially ridiculous given the lack of any “drive-by-bayonetings” in living memory.

Nevertheless, as the statute is currently written, whether a gun is a prohibited “assault weapon” seems to turn on the incredibly irrelevant characteristic of whether the gun “looks mean enough.”  Such distinctions disregard any and all statistical analysis on the relationship between firearms and crime, while scoring cheap points for popularity-hungry politicians and Nielsen-driven news programmers.

An example of this style-over-substance approach to public policy occurred last week at CNN.  In an effort to show the deadly affects of the “assault weapons” banned under the expiring 1994 law, CNN’s John Zarella appeared with Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne, a staunch anti-gun activist.  Sheriff Jenne, sporting an old Chinese AK-47 — reported by CNN to be “banned under the 1994 law” — turned the weapon to semi-automatic mode and reportedly fired at a cinder block.  CNN showed the “targeted” cinder block, apparently undamaged.  Sheriff Jenne then switched to automatic mode and fired at the brick, which was then destroyed.  “Wow!” Zarella quipped.  “That obliterated those blocks … and you can tell the difference.”

This week, CNN had to air several corrections.  CNN had claimed that the Chinese AK-47 would be legalized if the ban expired.  But it would not, as the ban does not even address the AK-47, which is covered by other, older federal laws restricting fully automatic firearms.  The report also claimed that if Congress were to allow the ban to expire, fully automatic weapons like the AK-47 would flood American streets.  They wouldn’t because the “assault weapons” ban does not address fully automatic weapons.  Lastly, it turned out that the undamaged brick target had never even been fired on — yet another journalistic fib by America’s “most trusted news network.”

Whether or not Congress renews the “assault weapons” ban, the American people deserve an honest and open debate on the law and its effects.  Debate driven by irrational fears and intellectual dishonesty will lead only to bad policy.  The American people deserve a Congress that will engage in this open and honest debate, and they should demand a news media unwilling to sacrifice factual reporting on the altar of ratings-desperate sensationalism.

Christopher J. Armstrong is a law student at the Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law and is interning at the Center for Individual Freedom this summer.

[Posted May 26, 2003]

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