Monday, January 14, 2013

On Assault Weapons, Logic Collides With Politics

      Just four weeks after the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., a 16-year-old student sneaked into his school in central California on Thursday [January 10], armed with a shotgun, and fired at classmates he blamed for bullying him. In contrast to the 26 students killed in Newtown, however, the casualty count at Taft Union High School was minimal: one student wounded, in critical but stable condition, and a teacher grazed by a shotgun pellet.
      Just as in Newtown, the still unidentified juvenile in California might have killed or wounded many more. Authorities in the Kern County sheriff’s office say the student had a list of other targeted schoolmates. But the student’s 12-gauge shotgun lacked the firepower of the AR-15 assault rifle with a 30-round magazine that Adam Lanza used on Dec. 14 to mow down more than two dozen six- and seven-year-olds in a matter of minutes. And a teacher talked the student into giving up his weapon — in contrast to Lanza, who never had to stop to reload.
      The logic of the two episodes seems inescapable: an effective ban on assault weapons would likely limit the number of deaths and injuries in mass shootings. So it was no surprise that among the first policymaking responses to Newtown was a vow by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, to introduce legislation in the new Congress to revive the assault weapons ban that the Republican-majority Congress allowed to lapse in 2004.
      Politically, however, an assault weapons ban remains at best a long shot. The brook-no-compromise leadership of the National Rifle Association (NRA) will not hear of it. The NRA’s lock on the Republican Party will doom the proposal in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives unless lawmakers feel heat from the White House. And even after Newtown, a Gallup Poll indicates that a narrow majority of Americans — 51 percent to 43 percent — oppose reinstating the ban.
      Despite the obstacles, Vice President Joe Biden said on Sunday that the interdepartmental task force that Obama appointed him to lead after Newtown is likely to recommend a ban on assault weapons and large capacity magazines. Earlier, some insiders had reported speculation that the task force might drop the assault weapons issue in hopes of marshaling political capital for steps more likely to find bipartisan support.
      In arguing for the assault weapons ban, the administration and outside groups will have to work around booby-traps laid by the gun lobby. Opponents will argue in particular that the ban enacted by a Democratic-controlled Congress in 1994 had no discernible effect on crime or homicide rates during its decade on the books. The argument posits a criterion that the law, limited in scope and purpose, could not be expected to meet.
      To begin, the law banned only the manufacture or sale of new weapons that met the very specific definitions of an assault weapon. Unlike the broad federal ban on machine guns, the law allowed semi-automatic firearms without the requisite combination of lethal features. And the law had no effect on the estimated 1.5 million assault weapons then in circulation. For that reason alone, any effect the law might have had would necessarily have been gradual.
      In any event, the ban — included as one part of the omnibus Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act — was never realistically expected to have a major impact on crime or homicide rates. Assault weapons are not the firearm of choice for day-to-day killings, stick-ups, and break-ins. In a study for the National Institute of Justice as the ban was up for renewal, University of Pennsylvania criminologists concluded that its effects on gun violence were “likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for measurement.”
      Assault weapons are commonly used, however, in assaults on police officers and in mass shooting such as those in Newtown and in the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater. For that reason, the Penn researchers concluded that reducing criminal use of assault weapons and large capacity magazines “could have non-trivial effects” on gun shot victimizations. Attacks with semiautomatics, the researchers wrote, “result in more shots fired, more persons hit, and more wounds inflicted per victim than do attacks with other firearms.”
      More research might have teased out more conclusions about the effects of the ban. But the gun lobby has managed to cut off most federal funding of research into gun violence, its causes and effects.
      Where research fails, common sense nevertheless might prevail, as indicated by the common position taken on assault weapons over the weekend by ideologically opposite columnists. Joe Nocera, a generally liberal columnist for the New York Times, described the experience of firing an assault weapon as “frightening.” From the opposite side, conservative syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker endorsed an assault weapons ban despite a lifetime of growing up with guns and defending gun rights. Forcing a shooter to reload during a rampage, Parker concluded, could limit the toll.
      If polar-opposite columnists can find common ground on the issue, one might think that Republicans and Democrats in Congress could as well. But common ground on gun issues has proved elusive for the past 40 years — and may be elusive yet again this year.

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