Monday, May 19, 2003

CNN has found itself the target of criticism for misleading viewers about the types of weapons prohibited by a federal law due to expire next year.

Two CNN broadcasts last week, which featured firing demonstrations by the sheriff’s department in Broward County, Fla., suggested that firearms banned under a 1994 law are more powerful than similar, legal weapons. Yesterday, CNN admitted that was not true.

“In fact, if you fire the same caliber and type bullets from the two guns, you get the same impact,” CNN’s John Zarella told viewers yesterday.

One of the Thursday broadcasts incorrectly reported that fully automatic weapons are included in the 1994 ban on 19 types of semiautomatic rifles. Fully automatic firearms have been federally regulated since 1934.

“Either it was a deliberate attempt to fake the story, or the reporter had a complete ignorance of the story he’s covering,” said Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association.

In one of the segments, Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne introduced a detective with “an old Chinese AK-47 that has been banned.” Mr. Zarella, CNN’s Miami bureau chief, then said: “That is one of the 19 currently banned weapons.”

In fact, that weapon is not covered by the 1994 ban.

After the detective fired six shots, Mr. Zarella said: “OK. Now that was semiautomatic,” and Sheriff Jenne said: “Now this is automatic.”

The detective then fired a machine-gunlike burst at a cinder-block target, prompting Mr. Zarella to exclaim: “Wow! That obliterated those blocks. … Absolutely obliterated it. And you can tell the difference.”

Fully automatic weapons, such as machine guns and AK-47s, are regulated by the National Firearms Act of 1934. They are not among the semiautomatic guns prohibited by the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.

The 1994 law — which will expire in September 2004 if Congress does not renew it — banned some military-style rifles that are semiautomatic, meaning they fire one shot each time the trigger is pulled.

The NRA and other gun rights groups say the banned guns are only “cosmetically” different than many legal types of firearms, and that the news media have consistently confused the semiautomatics with fully automatic weapons, such as the M-16.

“This whole ban was lied into law 10 years ago, and it seems to me we can do better than lying again,” Mr. LaPierre said.

Yesterday, CNN aired another broadcast that clarified which weapons are banned under the 1994 law, saying the ban is based on whether the gun has external features, such as a flash suppressor or a pistol grip.

A CNN anchor introduced yesterday’s segment by saying: “On this program on Thursday, we aired a live demonstration CNN set up with law enforcement officials of a banned semiautomatic rifle and its legal counterpart. We reviewed that demonstration and one on another CNN program, and decided that a more detailed report would better explain this complex issue.”

“We caught them red-handed, in the act. Now they’re backpedaling,” Mr. LaPierre said after yesterday’s broadcast.

In the first of the two segments that aired Thursday, a Broward County detective fired the AK-47 in semiautomatic mode, and the camera showed bullets hitting a cinder-block target. The detective then fired a legal semiautomatic weapon, and CNN showed a cinder-block target with no apparent damage. On Friday, CNN admitted that the detective had not been firing at the cinder block.

Some law enforcement officers who saw the Broward County sheriff’s presentation on CNN called the NRA to say they were “horrified that a law enforcement official would mislead the public this way,” said “NRA Live” host Ginny Simone.

In 2000, Sheriff Jenne, a former Democratic state legislator, supported a bill in the Florida Legislature, HB-363, that would have banned several types of rifles under a broad definition of “assault weapons” and also would have prohibited many handguns. The bill died in committee.

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