By DAVID WHITNEY
June 22, 2005
There you will find advertisements for semiautomatic rifles and pistols looking like something out of a war zone, with ammunition clips holding 30 or 40 bullets - many features that 11 months ago, U.S. manufacturers could not make and gun stores could not sell.
"Since the assault weapons ban was allowed to expire, it has been open season for criminals who want the most dangerous types of military-style assault weapons," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who in March introduced legislation to revive the old ban.
Feinstein said that the expiration of the ban she fought hard to get in 1994 "will have deadly consequences on the streets of America."
But has it really made much of a difference? Are the streets less safe?
There is no hard evidence one way or another.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has no statistics that would show whether there's been an uptick in sales of assault-style weapons, and the Department of Justice has no statistics that would show whether there's been an increase in their use in crimes.
Gun manufacturers say their shops are busy, but only because the 10-year ban created pent-up demand for weapons with features that weren't available.
"It's changed our market a bit," said Mark Westrom, president of Armalite, an Illinois company that produces the military-style weapons.
But Westrom said the company is not selling anywhere near the volume that many gun-control advocates had forecast.
"It's a non-story," he said.
Sandy Abrams, a board member of the National Rifle Association who owns Valley Gun of Baltimore, said he has seen a drop in sales of the guns at his urban store.
"It's not like there was this groundswell of demand," he said.
Besides, Abrams said, manufacturers never stopped making what are commonly called assault weapons. They just retooled to make guns that got around the ban.
Even among advocates of gun-control legislation, there is no agreement on whether the expiration of the ban is a disaster in the making as Feinstein claims or the quiet passing of a law that had no teeth anyway.
Eric Howard, a spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said that just because there are no statistics to prove it does not mean the expiration of the ban has been a big so-what.
"Now manufacturers are kicking it up, and we're seeing things like fingerprint proof-resistant grips," he said.
"That's clearly to attract a niche that's not your regular duck hunter."
But Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center, said it was a myth that there was an assault weapons ban in the United States during the 10 years that the law was in effect.
"The gun industry had so successfully evaded the assault weapons ban that its expiration had absolutely no effect," she said.
The federal ban outlawed U.S.-built ammunition clips holding more than 10 bullets and a handful of specific models. But mostly it prohibited the manufacture and sale of guns with a combination of specified features, such as a flash suppressor, a folding stock and a bayonet lug.
Instead of ceasing to sell the guns, Rand said, manufacturers cleverly reissued them with the same look, feel and purpose - only with just one of the features, typically a pistol grip.
In the months after the ban's expiration, gun-control advocates took heart that several states began to look at enacting their own laws, patterned after California's, to keep military-style weapons out of gun shops.
Now with the toughest ban of any state, California law makes it illegal to sell a gun with any of the features that had been included in the federal ban.
But one by one, the state legislative efforts in Massachusetts, Maine and, finally, Illinois failed this spring.
Illinois came the closest, when its House by a single vote shot down a measure banning the sale of assault-style guns.
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