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Monday, September 13, 2004

Banana Clip Ban Expires

An awful lot of the political debate nowadays is pretty vapid. To some extent the problem is Republican lies, and the press, which doesn't call them on their lies. No doubt the Democrats could do better too. But a lot of the problem is really that bad policy leads to a bad debate.

It's hard to have a worthwhile debate over the deficit when Bush puts out a phony budget that excludes many large expenses that he's endorsed. Critics have to spend all their time and effort pointing out that the budget is phony, rather than discussing the real issues. It's hard to have a worthwhile debate about terrorism, when Bush & Cheney's main response is invading Iraq to stop Saddam's nuclear program. You've got to talk about the Iraq war, rather than port and border security, intelligence gathering, resources for first responders, and lots of other things that are actually relevant to the fight.

Another case in point is the assault weapons ban, which expired yesterday. This law was mostly bad policy, mixed in with a little good policy. But discussion about the bad parts drove out discussion about the good ones, and made it hard to understand the real issues.

I wasn't going to shed any tears for the expiration of the "assault weapon" ban. Although at one time I supported it, I had learned from the pro-gun people that it was merely a ban on scary-looking guns, not a ban on automatic weapons or machine guns or military weapons. Indeed, many [sensible] [liberals], and even [strong supporters of gun control] were against the assault weapons ban. The relevant portion of the assault weapons ban defines an "assault weapon" as:
          (B) a semiautomatic rifle that has an ability to accept a  

detachable magazine and has at least 2 of--

(i) a folding or telescoping stock;

(ii) a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the
action of the weapon;

(iii) a bayonet mount;

(iv) a flash suppressor or threaded barrel designed to
accommodate a flash suppressor; and

(v) a grenade launcher;

There are additional definitions for semiautomatic pistols and shotguns, and a list of banned weapons. So a semiautomatic gun with a pistol grip and a bayonet mount was illegal, which seems pretty absurd. Many manufacturers complied with the ban by making minor modifications, for example, requiring the buyers to add the pistol grip themselves. And I doubt that we're going to have a problem with bayonet-wielding criminals now that the ban has expired. At the same time, the ban didn't apply to existing weapons, so there was a large supply used assault rifles remained available.

So the assault weapons ban is almost insulting. It banned a class of weapons that look more scary than other semiautomatic rifles, but aren't any more deadly. And it didn't even ban them very effectively. If it was targeted at anyone, it was targeted at hobbyists who think it's fun to own a gun with a military look (see this picture of Senator Schumer firing an assault weapon and looking like he's have a good time) . These guns were much less popular with criminals, who prefer easily concealable pistols. It seems to have been designed to provide a talking point for liberal politicians, rather than to do anything to fight crime. In short, the goal was to trick people.

But as the ban was set to expire, I listened to a few minutes of utterly confusing debate on NPR that left me with no idea what the ban actually did, even though I thought I already understood the issue. So I looked up the law and learned that the assault weapon ban also banned large capacity ammunition clips holding more than 10 bullets. Of course old clips are grandfathered in too (clips are reusable: just add bullets), so the main effect seems to have been to raise the price of high-capacity magazines (see an article quoted on the Schumer page). Banning high-capacity magazines does seem like a worthwhile objective to me. The police worry about being outgunned by criminals, and big ammo clips do seem potentially worrisome. I'd been tricked by the pro-gun people too! They never seemed to mention this aspect of the law!

Well, actually, now that I understand the issue better I see that many of them did mention the banana clip ban. Of the three liberals I cited, Mark Kleiman mentions it briefly, and Eugene Volokh has mentioned it too. But this key point was lost on me amid all the charges and counter-charges about the ban on cosmetic features and the grandfathering in of all existing guns.

I don't think Kerry's done much to improve the quality of the debate either. He's been claiming that the ban has been effective, rather than window dressing. As usual, though, Kerry has taken a forthright stand (in favor of the ban) while Bush has tried to have it both ways. Bush has endorsed the ban, but taken no action to get it passed. Here's Bush's Press Secretary giving a typical performance, refusing to do anything but repeat his talking points:
Q Isn't it kind of disingenuous for the President to say that I'm for the assault weapons ban, but then not spend a nickel of his political capital to fight for it?

MR. McCLELLAN: I disagree. His position has always been well-known, and it's been clear going back to his first campaign for President.
That's the entirety of his answer.

Ultimately, though, I don't think the press or advocates or even Bush and Kerry are to blame for the worthlessness of the debate. The debate has been crappy because the law was so crappy. So bad debate about the cosmetic ban on cosmetic features guns drowned out discussion of the potentially worthwhile features of the law. We should have been discussing whether to ban banana clips, not pistol grips.


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