Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Who Needs Assault Weapons?

August 18, 2004


MERIDIAN, Idaho — If you've been longing for your very own assault rifle and 30-round magazine for the next holiday season, you're in luck.

President Bush, sidestepping a promise, is allowing the ban on assault rifles and oversized clips to expire on Sept. 14. So at a gun store here in Meridian, a bit west of Boise, the counter has a display promising "2 FREE HIGH-CAPACITY MAGAZINES."

All you have to do is purchase a new Beretta 9-millimeter handgun and you'll receive two high-capacity magazines - on the condition, the fine print states, that the federal ban expires on schedule.

President Bush promised in the last presidential campaign to support an extension of the ban, which was put in place in 1994 for 10 years. "It makes no sense for assault weapons to be around our society," Mr. Bush observed at the time.

These days Mr. Bush still says that he'll sign an extension of the ban if it happens to reach his desk. But he knows that the only way the ban can be extended on time is if he actually urges its passage, and he refuses to do that. So his promise to support an extension rings hollow - it's not exactly a lie, but it's not the full truth, either.

Mr. Bush's flip-flop is surprising because he has generally had the courage of his convictions. Apparently he's hiding from this issue because it's so politically charged.

Critics of the assault weapon ban have one valid point: the ban has more holes than Swiss cheese.

"The big frustration of my customers is that [the ban] removed things that were kind of fun and made it look cool, but didn't affect how the gun operated," said Sean Wontor, a salesman who heaved two rifles onto the counter of Sportsman's Warehouse here in Meridian to make his point.

One was an assault weapon that was produced before the ban (and thus still legal), and the other was a sanitized version produced afterward to comply with the ban by removing the bayonet mount and the flash suppressor.

After these cosmetic changes, the rifle is now no longer considered an assault weapon, yet, of course, it is just as lethal.

Still, assault weapons, while amounting to only 1 percent of America's 190 million privately owned guns, account for a hugely disproportionate share of gun violence precisely because of their macho appeal.

Assault weapons aren't necessary for any kind of hunting or target shooting, but they're popular because they can transform a suburban Walter Mitty into Rambo, for a lot less money than a Hummer.

"I've got a ton of customers shooting squirrels with AK-47's," said Kevin Tester, a gun salesman near Boise. "They're using 30-round magazines and 7.62-millimeter ammunition, they're shooting up the hills, and they're having a blast."

I grew up on an Oregon farm that bristled with guns to deal with the coyotes that dined on our sheep. Having fired everything from a pistol to a machine gun, I can testify that shooting can be a lot of fun. But consider the cost: 29,000 gun deaths in America each year.

While gun statistics are as malleable as Play-Doh, they do underscore that assault weapons are a special problem in America.

They accounted for 8.4 percent of the guns traced to crimes between 1988 and 1991, and they are still used in one in five fatal shootings of police officers. If anything, we should be plugging the holes in the ban by having it cover copycat weapons without bayonet mounts, instead of moving backward and allowing a new flood of weapons and high-capacity magazines.

The bottom line is that Mr. Bush's waffling on assault weapons will mean more dead Americans.

About 100 times as many Americans are already dying from gunfire in the U.S. as in Iraq. As many Americans die from firearms every six weeks as died in the 9/11 attacks - yet the White House is paralyzed on this issue.

Mr. Bush needs to live up to his campaign promise and push to keep the ban on assault weapons. Otherwise, we'll bring more of the Iraq-like carnage to our own shores, and his refusal to confront our gun problem will kill more Americans over time than Osama bin Laden ever could.