2 decades ago, Congress made a temporary decision on guns that haunts us to this day.
In 1994, President Clinton signed a crime bill that, among other things, banned the production of certain military-type semi-automatic weapons for civilian use.
At best, it could be seen as a wise move for public safety no matter your take on the Second Amendment. What practical need is there for a civilian to own such a thing?
At worst, it was another example of politics as usual collusion among lawmakers and lobbyists to create the illusion of cooperation in the interest of public safety.
The law narrowly made its way through Congress in mostly partisan votes. But the assault weapons ban had major shortcomings that, in light of the shooting in San Bernardino and many others like it, may be haunting us to this day.
1. It wasn’t built to last.
The deciding factor in getting the bill through a divided Congress was a sunset provision that gave the law an expiration date 10 years from the day it became law unless Congress took further action to reinstate it.
With broad support for the ban including from national police organizations George W. Bush maintained that he would sign the renewal bill if it came to his desk.
But that day came and went in 2004 without a renewal of the ban from the Republican-controlled Congress, who defied public opinion to protect their political interests.
2. It was riddled with loopholes.
First, there was no clear definition of what constituted an “assault weapon,” wrote Brad Plumer of The Washington Post:
“There are fully automatic weapons, which fire continuously when the trigger is held down. Those have been strictly regulated since 1934. Then there are semiautomatic weapons that reload automatically but fire only once each time the trigger is depressed. … Congress didn’t want to ban all semiautomatic weapons that would ban most guns, period. So, in crafting the 1994 ban, lawmakers mainly focused on 18 specific firearms, as well as certain military-type features on guns.”
Congress’s minced approach made it easy for gun makers to tweak features to legally produce weapons that were fundamentally the same as those restricted by the ban.
There were also “grandfather” provisions that gave a pass to semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines produced before the ban took effect.
3. It lacked the resolve seen in other rich countries.
A 1996 mass shooting in Port Arthur, Tasmania, an island state south of Australia, ended with 35 dead and 23 wounded. So the Aussies took decisive action to stop future mass shootings.
They banned all semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, avoiding the types of loopholes exploited by gun manufacturers in the U.S., and spent a half billion dollars buying back the guns in circulation. Since then, the country has seen zero mass shootings.
In Japan, where all firearms except shotguns and air rifles have been outlawed for decades, they’ve had as few as two gun-related homicides a year.
The United Kingdom and Canada also have assault weapons bans and strict licensure rules for buying a gun, and both countries experience a fraction of the gun-related deaths we see in the U.S.
Meanwhile in the U.S., “there are depressingly few days if any between most mass shootings. More than 75% of the time, there has been another mass shooting on the same day or the day before,” wrote Buzzfeed, citing data from ShootingTracker.com.
Politics won’t solve the problem of gun violence. Humility over our mistakes and the courage to face them will.
Authorities have confirmed that two of the four weapons used in the San Bernardino shooting were assault rifles “powerful enough to pierce the standard protective vest worn by police officers,” said Meredith Davis of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. All of the weapons used were legally purchased.
Guns may be an ingrained part of the American identity, but we have a shameful record with them. And if there’s anything we should have learned by now, it’s that tinkering around the edges isn’t solving the problem.
Banning assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, and other impractical gun gadgets doesn’t have to mean we’re “taking away all the guns.”
We can’t say with any certainty that a firm ban would solve gun violence, but the stats from our more gun-strict global neighbors are evidence that a law like this could have limited the horror and destruction of events like the shooting in San Bernardino.
And forgoing chances to enact that and other reasonable measures is, to use a related clich, like shooting ourselves in the feet or worse.