- The Washington Times - Friday, September 17, 2004

Let’s be perfectly candid about the demise after 10 years of the dearly departed federal “ban” on “assault weapons.” It didn’t really ban anything.

Ask any kid on any high-crime street in America. They can tell you.

Yes, crime rates overall took a welcome dip while the law was in effect in the 1990s, but that can be attributed to many factors, including aggressive arrests and prosecutions. Meanwhile, the supply of heavy-duty weapons was hardly affected, thanks to the law’s limits and loopholes.

The law, which expired Monday for lack of support from the White House and Congress, prohibited 19 specific models of military-style semiautomatic rifles. It also limited magazines to 10 rounds and prohibited rifles with two or more of the following features: a collapsing stock, pistol grip, flash suppressor, bayonet mount or grenade launcher.

Gun manufacturers wiggled around the ban by making the old weapons under new names but without the prohibited features. For example, you could still buy a used 16-round semiautomatic pistol or settle for a 10-round version, if you wanted a new one, and find a higher-capacity clip that still could be sold if it manufactured prior to the ban.

Criminals wriggled around the ban, too. The East Coast snipers, for example, used a not-banned Bushmaster rifle that was a civilian version of the banned military M-16 to kill six innocent people in the D.C. area in 2002.

The ineffectiveness of the law is not disputed by gun owner groups like the National Rifle Association or their opponents in gun-control groups like Jim and Sarah Brady of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. The NRA thinks the law went too far, that it needlessly penalized law-abiding gun buyers without hurting criminals. It supporters will tell you it did not go far enough.

But, if the so-called ban was really “cosmetic” and “feel-good legislation,” as branded by the NRA, it was because that’s what the NRA wanted. When the NRA couldn’t hold back the tide of public outrage over a rising flood of high-powered weapons into the wrong hands, NRA surrogates in Congress watered it down. Now they’ve finished it off.

Yet, most Americans want to do something, however modest, to at least slow the high tide of high-capacity weapons in this country. A University of Pennsylvania National Annenberg Election Survey in April found 71 percent of respondents, including 64 percent of those in households with guns, supported renewing the ban.

But, the single-issue voters against gun controls, though a minority, are committed and passionate enough to frighten many politicians into submission, no matter what the majority tells pollsters. Al Gore’s losses of Arkansas and West Virginia in 2000, for example, are widely blamed on NRA opposition. A win in either state would have given him the presidency.

And that helps to explain how George Bush has had it both ways on the issue. “It makes no sense for assault weapons to be around our society,” he said during his 2000 campaign. If Congress sent him a bill to renew the ban, he would sign it, he said. But, four years later, the conservative Congress was not about to send him such a bill and the president who strong-armed Congress to pass his tax cuts, his Medicare drug benefit and his Iraq war resolution, failed to give even a nod or a wink in defense of the so-called weapons ban.

If supporters of the ban really knew how weak it was, they would change their minds, NRA leaders say. I agree. I think many of them would change their minds and demand stronger legislation. I also think that is what really worries the NRA.

Meanwhile, I think we need more debate about promising alternatives, such as Project Exile, a Clinton-era program that won enthusiastic support from both the Bradys and from NRA leaders like Charlton Heston and Wayne LaPierre.

Initiated in 1997 by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Richmond, Va., Project Exile aggressively arrests, incarcerates, detains, prosecutes and sentences anyone who commits a crime with a gun in their possession. Gun carrying by criminals reportedly was cut almost in half once word got around that mere possession of a firearm would land them in federal prison.

Zero-tolerance programs always raise legitimate concerns about civil liberties. But this is a debate we really need. Exile-like programs are spreading across the country for a very good reason: Instead of just targeting guns, they target the outlaws who misuse guns. It’s not a perfect solution, but it makes more sense than a gun ban that fires mostly blanks.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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