Monday, August 16, 2004

The federal assault-weapons ban, scheduled to expire in September, is not responsible for the nation’s steady decline in gun-related violence and its renewal likely will achieve little, according to an independent study commissioned by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ).

“We cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation’s recent drop in gun violence. And, indeed, there has been no discernible reduction in the lethality and injuriousness of gun violence,” said the unreleased NIJ report, written by Christopher Koper, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

“It is thus premature to make definitive assessments of the ban’s impact on gun violence. Should it be renewed, the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement,” said the report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times.

The report also noted that assault weapons were “rarely used in gun crimes even before the ban.”

NIJ is the Justice Department’s research, development and evaluation agency — assigned the job of providing objective, independent, evidence-based information to the department through independent studies and other data collection activities.

The assault-weapons ban is set to expire Sept. 13, and at least six bills reauthorizing it are pending in the Senate and House.

The issue has sparked nationwide debate: The National Rifle Association has called the ban ineffective in curbing crime and a violation of the Second Amendment, while gun-control advocates have said the nation’s streets will be filled with automatic weapons if the ban is not reauthorized.

The assault-weapons ban imposed a 10-year moratorium on the “manufacture, transfer and possession” of certain semiautomatic firearms designated as assault weapons. It banned 18 models and variations by name, as well as revolving-cylinder shotguns, and prohibited flash hiders, folding rifle stocks and threaded barrels for attaching silencers.

A number of the banned weapons were foreign semiautomatic rifles that have been barred from importation into the United States since 1989. The ban also prohibited most ammunition magazines holding more than 10 rounds.

According to recent surveys by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), firearms-related crime has declined to record levels. The violent crime rate has fallen 54 percent since 1993, and there were more than 980,000 fewer violent crimes in 2002 than in 2000.

But in the past three years, according to the BJS, federal gun prosecutions have increased by 68 percent, with the number of persons charged with federal firearms offenses rising by more than 22 percent in fiscal 2003, the largest single-year increase ever recorded.

The 102-page NIJ report said the assault-weapons ban was intended to “reduce gunshot victimizations by limiting the national stock of semiautomatic firearms with large ammunition capacities,” although it said the automatic-weapons provision of the bill targeted a “relatively small number of weapons” based on features that had little to do with the weapons’ operation.

The report said the removal of those features, such as detachable high-capacity magazines, was “sufficient to make the weapons legal.”

In 1994, when the ban was approved by Congress, 1.5 million privately owned assault weapons were thought to be in the United States. The report said assault weapons were used in 2 percent of gun crimes reported nationwide before enactment of the 1994 ban. It also said assault weapons and other guns equipped with large-capacity magazines accounted for a higher share of the guns used to kill police officers and in mass public shootings, although such incidents were “very rare.”

The report said the relatively rare use of assault weapons in crimes was attributable to a number of factors: Most assault weapons are rifles, which are used much less often than handguns, a number of the weapons were barred from importation before the ban was enacted, and the weapons are expensive and difficult to conceal.

“The ban’s success in reducing criminal use of the banned guns and magazines has been mixed,” the report said, noting that because the ban had not yet reduced the use of large-capacity magazines in crime, researchers could not “clearly credit the ban with any of the nation’s recent drop in gun violence.”

The report said although the ban’s reauthorization or expiration could affect gunshot victimizations, predictions were “tenuous.” It said restricting the flow of large-capacity magazines into the United States from abroad might be necessary to achieve the ban’s desired effects.

But it said it was not known whether mandating further design changes in the outward features of semiautomatic weapons — such as removing all military-style features — would produce measurable benefits beyond restricting ammunition capacity.

Past experience also suggests that congressional discussion of broadening the assault-weapons ban to new models or features would raise prices and production of the weapons being considered, the report said, adding that if the ban were lifted, gun and magazine manufacturers could reintroduce weapons and magazines in substantial numbers. But, the report said, any resulting increase in crimes with assault weapons and large-capacity magazines might increase gunshot victimizations, “though this effect could be difficult to measure.”

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