A ban on assault weapons sounds like a political no-brainer. Polls have shown that over two-thirds of the public supports it, as do the police chiefs of most major cities and several prominent gun victims. Yet with the 10-year-old ban set to expire Monday, Congress is looking the other way.
Blame the odd vortex of election-year politics.
The weapons ban, enacted in 1994, bans 19 specific semiautomatic weapons -- meaning that for each pull of the trigger one bullet is fired and another is loaded into the chamber -- and outlaws ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. On the list of banned guns are civilian versions (i.e. slightly less powerful models) of the AK-47 assault rifle and Uzi. Fully automatic weapons are not covered and will remain illegal no matter what happens.
Supporters credit the ban with contributing to record decreases in crime in the 1990s. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, for example, claims that use of the banned weapons in gun crimes has decreased 66 percent as a result of the statute. They also worry that lifting the ban could introduce a new generation of weapons onto the streets, with features that make them easier to conceal.
In order to keep the ban, however, Congress must enact reauthorization legislation. Although President Bush has announced he would sign the legislation, he has not pressured lawmakers to move on the issue. Left to act on its own, the Republican-controlled Congress has refused to do so.
This alone is not surprising, as Republicans generally run on a platform opposed to gun-control regulation, claiming it violates the Second Amendment. They also point to numerous loopholes in the assault weapons ban, which supporters generally acknowledge, and to other research studies, including one funded by the Department of Justice, that have found no clear link between the gun ban and a reduction in crime. On Wednesday, Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay called the ban "a feel-good piece of legislation" that did nothing to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.
What may be surprising is that so many Democrats are also sitting out this fight. While John Kerry voted for reauthorization of the ban this spring (the bill was later withdrawn), he has not pressed the case lately and was photographed last week brandishing a shotgun. Other leading Democrats have been similarly reticent.
Why? Quite simply Democrats don't want to anger hunters who live in swing states. Although hunters may have little need for semiautomatic weapons, they do listen to what the powerful National Rifle Association has to say, and the NRA has not been afraid to empty both barrels into politicians who support the ban. This week, for example, the NRA launched a $400,000 television ad campaign in a number of battleground states that attacks Kerry for his support of the ban.
There is a historical precedent for this concern. Months after the original ban was passed in 1994, Democrats lost 52 seats in the House and eight in the Senate, losing control of both chambers in the process. President Clinton, a vigorous supporter of the ban, later blamed the ban for many of those election losses. Similarly in 2000, Al Gore's support of gun-control regulations may have cost him victory in states like Tennessee and West Virginia. Twice bitten, Democrats are reluctant to dip their feet back into the issue.
At least until after the election. Democrats may introduce a new version of the ban next year when they are not quite as worried about losing their jobs.