Many Say End of Firearm Ban Changed Little
New York Times | April 25, 2005
By DEBORAH SONTAG
espite dire predictions that the streets would be awash in military-style guns, the expiration of the decade-long assault weapons ban last September has not set off a sustained surge in the weapons' sales, gun makers and sellers say. It also has not caused any noticeable increase in gun crime in the past seven months, according to several metropolitan police departments.
The uneventful expiration of the assault weapons ban did not surprise gun owners, nor did it surprise some advocates of gun control. Rather, it underscored what many of them had said all along: that the ban was porous - so porous that assault weapons remained widely available throughout their prohibition.
"The whole time that the American public thought there was an assault weapons ban, there never really was one," said Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center, a gun-control group.
What's more, law enforcement officials say that military-style weapons, which were never used in many gun crimes but did enjoy some vogue in the years before the ban took effect, seem to have gone out of style in criminal circles.
"Back in the early 90's, criminals wanted those Rambo-type weapons they could brandish," said Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police. "Today they are much happier with a 9-millimeter handgun they can stick in their belt."
When the ban took effect in 1994, it exempted more than 1.5 million assault weapons already in private hands. Over the next 10 years, at least 1.17 million more assault weapons were produced - legitimately - by manufacturers that availed themselves of loopholes in the law, according to an analysis of firearms production data by the Violence Policy Center.
Throughout the decade-long ban, for instance, the gun manufacturer DPMS/Panther Arms of Minnesota continued selling assault rifles to civilians by the tens of thousands. In compliance with the ban, the firearms manufacturer "sporterized" the military-style weapons, sawing off bayonet lugs, securing stocks so they were not collapsible and adding muzzle brakes. But the changes did not alter the guns' essence; they were still semiautomatic rifles with pistol grips.
After the ban expired in September, DPMS reintroduced its full-featured weapons to the civilian market and enjoyed a slight spike in sales. That increase was short-lived, however, and predictably so, said Randy E. Luth, the company's owner.
"I never thought the sunset of the ban would be that big a deal," Mr. Luth said.
No gun production data are yet available for the seven months since the ban expired. And some gun-control advocates say they don't trust the self-reporting of gun industry representatives, who may want to play down the volume of their sales to ward off a revival of the ban.
Indeed, a replica of the ban is again before the Senate.
"In my view, the assault weapons legislation was working," said Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, a chief sponsor of the new bill. "It was drying up supply and driving up prices. The number of those guns used in crimes dropped because they were less available."
Assault weapons account for a small fraction of gun crimes: about 2 percent, according to most studies, and no more than 8 percent. But they have been used in many high-profile shooting sprees. The snipers in the 2002 Washington-area shootings, for instance, used semiautomatic assault rifles that were copycat versions of banned carbines.
Gun crime has plummeted since the early 1990's. But a study for the National Institute of Justice said that it could not "clearly credit the ban with any of the nation's recent drop in gun violence."
Research for the study in several cities did show a significant decline in the criminal use of assault weapons during the ban. According to the study, however, that decline was offset by the "steady or rising use" of other guns equipped with high-capacity magazines - ammunition-feeding devices that hold more than 10 rounds.
While the 1994 ban prohibited the manufacture and sale of such magazines, it did not outlaw an estimated 25 million of them already in circulation, nor did it stop the importation of millions more into the country.
Senator Feinstein said she wished she could outlaw the "flood of big clips" from abroad, calling that the "one big loophole" in the ban. But that would require amending the bill, and Republicans like Senator John W. Warner of Virginia and Senator Mike DeWine of Ohio are willing to back it only without amendments, she said.
Some gun-control advocates say it is pointless to reintroduce the 1994 ban without amending it to include large magazines and a wider range of guns. They see more promise in enacting or strengthening state or local bans. Seven states - California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey and New York - already have bans, most based on the federal one. The model ban, gun-control advocates say, is a comprehensive one in California (referred to as "Commiefornia" on some gun enthusiast Web sites).
The Fraternal Order of Police has not made a new federal ban a legislative priority, either. Mr. Pasco, the organization's director, said he could not recall a single "inquiry from the field about the reauthorization of the ban - and we have 330,000 members who are very vocal."
"In 1994, I was the principal administration lobbyist on this ban," said Mr. Pasco, who then worked for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. "But here we are 10 years later, and these weapons do not appear to pose any more significant threat to law enforcement officers than other weapons of similar caliber and capability."
The ban made it illegal to possess or sell a semiautomatic weapon manufactured after September 1994 if the weapon accepted a detachable magazine and contained at least two features from a list that included protruding pistol grips and threaded muzzles. The ban outlawed 19 weapons by name, among them some foreign semiautomatics already banned under the 1989 firearms importation law, which still stands.
But gun manufacturers increased production of assault weapons while the ban was being debated. Then, by making minor changes in design, they were able to produce, as they called them, "post-ban" assault weapons that were the functional equivalent of the originals.
Colt came out with a "sporterized" version of its popular AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, leaving off some military features that were "meaningless as far as its lethality," said Carlton S. Chen, vice president and general counsel for Colt.
"People might think it looks less evil," Mr. Chen said, "but it's the same weapon. It was a hoax, a Congressional hoax, to ban all these different features."
Mr. Pasco of the police organization disagreed. "We knew exactly what we were doing by trying to ban guns with certain features," he said. "While it didn't affect their function or capability, those features, at that point in time, seemed to make those weapons more attractive to those who wanted to commit crimes."
Gun-control advocates say military-style semiautomatics do not belong in civilian hands. "They are weapons of war," Senator Feinstein said, "and you don't need these assault weapons to hunt."
Gun makers, however, say the weapons do have sporting uses, in hunting and in target shooting. "People buy these rifles because they're fun to shoot and they perform well," Mr. Luth of DPMS said. "They also like them because you can jazz them up like you can your car. You can custom-paint them, put on a multitude of handguards or buttstocks."
Some collectors simply admire certain guns. Charles Cuzalina, a gun dealer in Oklahoma who specializes in banned weapons, is taken with the Colt AR-15.
"I just like the look of the weapon," Mr. Cuzalina said. "When I bought my first, I went out on the farm shooting at a pie plate, and I realized how accurate it makes you. You think you're the world's best shot."
Mark Westrom, owner of ArmaLite Inc., a gun maker in Illinois, said prey hunters and target shooters did not miss bayonet lugs and other features that disappeared with the post-ban rifles. Collectors looking for an exact civilian replica of a military rifle, however, consider the removal of a bayonet lug "a matter of design defacement," Mr. Westrom said.
Several manufacturers are offering factory conversions or selling kits so gun owners can retrofit their post-ban weapons. They are also increasing their production of pre-ban weapons and decreasing production of post-ban weapons.
Many gun store owners say that sales of assault weapons spiked briefly in September and October. Gun dealers sought to capitalize on the ban's sunset and, during the presidential campaign, to raise the specter of a tougher ban if John Kerry won.
"We view this time as a 'pause' and urge you to take advantage of the opportunity to exercise your Second Amendment rights," Tapco, a shooting and military gear company, said on its Web site last fall. "Anti-gun politicians learned much over the past 10 years. They will surely not leave as many loopholes in future legislation."
After President Bush was re-elected and the novelty of the ban's expiration waned, sales leveled off at many gun shops. But Mike Mathews, the owner of Gunworld in Del City, Okla., said sales had been holding steady at a higher level.
Norm Giguere of Norm's Gun & Ammo in Biddeford, Me., on the other hand, said that he had not sold any military-style semiautomatic rifles since right after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and that the gun business in general was "going down the tubes."
Mr. Luth of DPMS, however, said that his sales had been increasing for years, to the law enforcement community, the civilian market and an unexpected new clientele. "We've picked up new customers with the troops returning from Iraq," he said, "who had never shot an AR-15 before and now want one."
The war in Iraq has had another unintended consequence for the marketplace. Colt, one of the biggest manufacturers, has decided against putting its AR-15 back on the civilian market because the company is backlogged with military orders.
Unlike assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, which are used with many guns, have been selling briskly since the ban ended because prices have dropped considerably.
"The only thing Clinton ever did for us was drive up the price of magazines," said a weapons specialist named Stuart at TargetMaster, a shooting range and gun shop in Garland, Tex. (He declined to give his last name.) "A 17-round Glock magazine crept up to $150 during the ban. It's $75 now."
Since September, the Web site of Taurus International Manufacturing Inc., a major maker of small arms, has celebrated the demise of the prohibition on magazines, flashing in red letters, "10 years of 10 rounds are over!"