Friday, September 10, 2004

Rearming wrongdoers

Boston Globe
Rearming wrongdoers

September 10, 2004

THE UNITED States will become less safe on Monday if, as expected, President Bush and Congress allow the ban on assault weapons to expire. Opponents of the ban think they have politics on their side, but voters need to make it clear in November that they oppose increased lethality in a society already awash with guns.

The law, approved by Congress in 1994, bans 118 kinds of military-style assault weapons, both rifles and handguns, and prohibits the sale of large-capacity magazines holding more than 10 rounds. Gun violence dropped just after the law was passed. Much of this was coincidental, but reports from police departments around the country showed significant declines in the use of assault weapons in crime. Passage of the law showed that the United States was getting serious about the consequences of its lax attitudes toward guns. Even with the decline in violence, 11,348 people were murdered in 2001, the latest national tally available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The law contained loopholes limiting its effectiveness. Weapons manufactured before Sept. 13, 1994, were grandfathered in, which means that 1.5 million assault weapons and 25 million large-capacity magazines remained legal. And 4.7 million large-capacity magazines manufactured before the ban were imported into the country after the law was enacted. A study for the National Institute of Justice, an arm of the Justice Department, found that the use of these magazines in crimes increased in the late 1990s in four cities studied, probably because so many were sold legally.

Rather than letting the law expire, Congress should amend it so that large-capacity magazines are restricted further. The study for the National Institute of Justice found that these are far more likely to be used in crimes than the banned assault weapons.

Bush as a candidate in 1999 said, "It makes no sense for assault weapons to be around our society." Despite perfunctory expressions of support by his administration, the bill to extend the ban remains stalled in Congress. "I think the will of the American people is consistent with letting it expire," said Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Senate majority leader. Polls show overwhelming backing for the law, but many supporters lack the passion and clout of its opponents, led by the National Rifle Association.

The Massachusetts Legislature has acted to extend the ban in this state -- a good move. But with criminals and guns easily crossing state lines, this is really a federal matter. After 9/11, Congress and the president need to focus on domestic as well as foreign threats. Voters should hold them accountable for refusing to extend and improve this sensible law to protect Americans from gun violence.