Will abandoning weapons ban help gun safety?

Democrats just dropped assault weapons measure from their proposal. But that doesn't mean gun control is doomed

Published March 19, 2013 2:40PM (EDT)

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the lead author of the proposed Assault Weapons Ban, said yesterday that Democratic leaders have decided not to include her bill in a package of gun control measures expected to go before the full Senate next month. The ban is the most controversial of the proposals, so stripping it from the popular provisions, such as an expansion of background checks, almost certainly condemns it to a lonely death on the Senate floor.

"The leader has decided not to do it," Feinstein told reporters yesterday of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Why? “You will have to ask him,” she said.

The truth is that Reid's move was foreseeable (we predicted it at the beginning of February). And the even more uncomfortable truth for many liberals is that the Assault Weapons Ban would actually only affect a relatively tiny number of crimes, despite its high political cost.

As I wrote last month:

[The death of the ban] will inevitably be portrayed as a huge loss for gun control advocates, and another big cave from congressional Democrats and the White House ... But the Assault Weapons Ban is and always has been a bit of a red herring, so people concerned about gun violence shouldn’t be too sad to see it go. Of all the policy proposals to prevent gun violence, it’s probably the least important and the most controversial, making it the ideal sacrificial sacred cow to appease gun rights advocates and to help secure passage of more effective strategies to curbing gun deaths, like a ban on large capacity ammunition magazines.

Assault weapons are used in only 2 percent of all gun crimes, and while they are disproportionally used in mass murders, sprees account for less than 1 percent of gun homicide deaths. So the ban can only hope to impact a tiny fraction of all gun deaths (most gun deaths, about 60 percent, are suicides).

It actually turns out that gun rights advocates are correct in noting that the category of "assault weapons" is largely artificial, targeting firearms "based on outward features or accessories that have little to do with the weapons’ operation,” as criminologist Chris Koper et al. wrote in their official review of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban. That study found no statistically significant impact on crime or deaths from the Clinton-era law, though it did not conclude the ban was "a complete failure," as some gun rights absolutists falsely claim. The findings were inconclusive.

This is not to say that the ban has no value -- it does -- but experts say expanding background checks to cover private sales would have a much bigger impact on gun crime, so many are focusing on passing the more politically viable and more effective proposal.

By Alex Seitz-Wald

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Assault-weapon Bans Dianne Feinstein Gun Control Guns Harry Reid