by David B. Kopel
Washington Times, May 5, 1994, Thursday, p. A18. More by Kopel on self-loading firearms.
As the House of Representatives considers a bill by Rep. Charles Schumer, New York Democrat, that would outlaw certain semi-automatic firearms, three numbers are at the center of the prohibitionists' argument: 19, 100, and 20. As in, "The bill only outlaws 19 guns, 100 percent of law enforcement supports the ban, and assault weapons are 20 times more likely to be used in a crime than are ordinary guns." Such numbers have apparently convinced President Clinton that "assault weapon" prohibition is a "no-brainer." But if lawmakers cared to engage their brains before turning millions of American gun owners into felons, they would realize that the numbers cited to validate the prohibition are false.
The gun ban supposedly applies only to 19 especially wicked guns. But the bill actually applies to 19 "types" of guns and then adds on a generic ban. As a result, 184 guns - not 19 - would be outlawed. Among the guns to be prohibited are the Springfield Armory M1A and the Colt Sporter, two of the rifles most commonly used in competitive target shooting.
The claim that "all law enforcement" wants to outlaw so-called assault weapons is taken by some politicians as reason enough to go ahead with prohibitions. Ironically, many liberals who would (correctly) ignore law enforcement demands to abolish the Miranda warning or the exclusionary rule or the probable cause requirement of the Fourth Amendment are willing to accede to law enforcement demands to chop away at the Second Amendment.
In any case, law enforcement support for "assault weapon" prohibition is hardly unanimous. When Law Enforcement Technology magazine polled its readers, only 37 percent of top management and 11 percent of street officers supported "assault weapon" prohibition. The Florida Fraternal Order of Police polled its members and found 75 percent opposed to outlawing "assault weapons," and a poll by the Southern States P.B.A. of its members yielded similar results. Indeed, many police officers, who are target shooters, own their own "assault weapons," and they know that the menacing appearance of some "assault weapons" does not increase their dangerousness.
For half a decade the gun prohibition lobby has been repeating the mantra that "assault weapons are the weapon of choice" of criminals. But in California, a study by the attorney general's office found that "assault weapons" accounted for only 1.3 percent of guns involved in violent crime.
In Denver the chief of police told the city council that ownership of "assault weapons" was pervasive among criminals. Yet when the Colorado Attorney General's Office investigated the Denver police firearms inventory, they found that of the 1,752 guns that Denver police had seized, only 14 were "assault weapons." Of those 14 guns, half were taken from a person who was never charged with a crime, and only one gun had been used in a crime of violence.
Despite the impression created by the television show "Miami Vice," so- called assault weapons were used in only 3.3 percent of gun crimes in Miami. Police firearms examiners in Florida told a legislative commission that the percentage of "assault weapons" seized has been declining since the early 1980s.
The evidence from every other jurisdiction that has reported police seizure data - including Akron, Baltimore, Connecticut, Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New Jersey, New York, Oakland, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, and Washington - shows that "assault weapons" amount to no more than 3.9 percent of guns seized, and are usually about 1 percent or less.
Faced with the overwhelming evidence about police gun seizures, the gun prohibition lobby has used the tactic of ignoring the police data and harping on the results of a Cox newspapers article written in 1989. The article looked at gun traces conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and concluded that "assault weapons" were 10 percent of guns traced. Since "assault weapons" were estimated at only comprising 0.5 percent of the American gun supply (a gross underestimate), "assault weapons" were said to be "20 times more likely" to be used in crime than other guns.
BATF, however, traces only 2 percent of all guns used in violent crime. Accordingly, the BATF trace data are not an accurate sample of crime guns in general. For example, "assault weapons" were the subject of 19 percent of trace requests in Los Angeles, but they constituted only 1 percent of crime guns seized in that city.
Accordingly, BATF in 1992 explained that the Cox factoid was meaningless: "Concluding that assault weapons are used in 1 of 10 firearms related crimes is tenuous at best since our traces and/or the UCR (FBI Uniform Crime Reports) may not be truly representative of all crimes."
Likewise, a 1992 report by the Congressional Research Service concluded that guns traced by BATF "cannot be considered representative of the larger universe of all firearms used by criminals, or any subset of that universe."
"To me the only reason for guns in civilian hands is for sporting purposes" explains Handgun Control, Inc. Chair Sarah Brady.
Persons like Mrs. Brady who do not accept the legitimacy of gun ownership for defensive purposes have every right to lobby for a ban on any firearm they find insufficiently sporting. But proposals for such a ban should be discussed openly, not accompanied by a bodyguard of dishonest factoids.
David B. Kopel is an associate policy analyst with the Cato Institute and author of "The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy: Should America Adopt the Gun Controls of Other Democracies?"