The Sandy Hook School massacre has again brought the issue of gun control to the forefront.
U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein says she will try to renew the ban on assault weapons. It was passed in 1994, but expired in 2004.
U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia voted for the ban and said this week that it’s “unacceptable that it hasn’t been reauthorized.”
Joe Manchin, the more conservative of the state’s two Democratic Senators, has expressed his willingness to consider limiting the availability of high-powered assault weapons. Manchin, who is a hunter and has an “A” rating from the NRA, said he does not understand the necessity for assault rifles and 30-round clips.
But before rushing headlong into renewal of the ban, Congress and the country need a serious and factual debate about how it works and what it might achieve.
One of the most often quoted studies about the assault weapons ban comes from the University of Pennsylvania. That 2004 report to the Justice Department found that the ten-year ban on certain semiautomatic firearms did not necessarily make the country any safer.
“We cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation’s recent drop in gun violence,” the report concluded. “And, indeed, there has been no discernible reduction in the lethality and injuriousness of gun violence.”
However, there are some important caveats to those findings.
The study points out that prior to the ban, so-called assault rifles were used in only two to eight percent of all gun crimes. The vast majority of gun crimes were committed with weapons not included in the ban.
Additionally, the ban grandfathered in 1.5 million privately owned assault weapons and nearly 25 million guns equipped with large capacity magazines. (The ban limited magazine capacity to 10 bullets in most cases.)
“The ban’s exemption of millions of pre-ban AWs (assault weapons) and LCMs (large capacity magazines) ensures that the effects of the law would only occur gradually,” the study concluded.
The study’s findings suggest that simply renewing the assault weapon ban as it existed from 1994 to 2004 wouldn’t significantly impact gun violence. But what if a new ban went farther?
Australia imposed a stricter version of an assault weapons ban in 1996, banning all semiautomatic rifles. According to the Washington Post, Australia “spent $500 million buying up nearly 600,000 guns from private owners.”
The Post quotes a British Medical Journal study that said gun violence dropped and the country went a decade without any fatal mass shootings.
These are emotional times. Every American has been touched by the horror in Newtown and the desire to do something.
And something should be done to try to ensure that mentally deranged individuals cannot get their hands on lethal weapons and carry out mass killings.
But whatever we do should be fact-driven and geared toward a realistic expectation of what can be accomplished.