Assault This

Even the not-so-liberal-anymore Washington Post editorial page wants the assault weapons ban renewed. A couple of salient points their pitch makes is that criminals almost never use weapons of this sort (they’re relatively big and expensive; crooks don’t actually fight pitched fire-fights in the streets where this sort of thing would be useful) or that the point of the second amendment is to protect the right to “military-style” weapons, it’s not some kind of hunter protection act.

The crux of the issue, however, is this. “Assault weapon” does not denote a natural kind. There is not, in other words, some clear definition of what is and is not an assault weapon by which we can tell whether or not some novel firearm fits the criteria. Instead, the ban is on a fairly ad hoc collection of firearms. This has the benefit of maintaining the legality of a variety of widely used long guns, but it comes at the cost of making the ban entirely pointless. Slight alterations to banned guns rendered them legal, or people can substitute a similar, but legal, model for a banned one. The Post takes this on thusly:

Opponents of the ban have still other absurd arguments for dropping the law. They say that the federal ban applies to only 19 weapons by name, and that copies are still out on the market; true, and all the more reason to improve the bill, not scrap it. As it stands, the federal law provides specific protection to 670 types of hunting rifles and shotguns currently being manufactured. Won’t that do?

This “mend it, don’t end it” line would make sense were there a good proposal on the table for mending it. But there isn’t. Instead, ban advocates have a series of further ad hoc revisions they’d like to make. This will simply set off a new round of evasions and a new round of calls for further ad hoc extensions of the ban. This is the sort of dynamic that makes gun owners fear that every piece of regulation is putting us on a slippery-slope to confiscation — the advocates insist that if the law is ineffective it should be tightened, but don’t have any operational definition of “assault weapon” that they’re working with other than “weapon that we think it’s politically feasible to ban.” Under the circumstances, people who take gun rights seriously feel the need to defend at every turn, because would-be banners are indicating a desire to ban every gun they can get away with.

Fundamentally, crime control would be much better served by stepping away from this sensational, but ultimately unimportant, corner of the gun regulation universe. The main bit of federal gun regulation right now is aimed at the notion that there are certain classes of persons — in particular, convicted felons — who should not be allowed to own firearms. The logic behind this is very clear. At the end of the day, I’d feel much safer standing next to a law-abiding citizens carrying an assault weapon than to a recently recently felon holding some other more menacing sort of gun. If you keep “assault weapons,” and pistols, and hunting rifles, and whatever other kind of firearm you care to name out of the hands of criminals, you’ll have accomplished the vast majority of what gun regulation can achieve on the crime control front. (Probably not a great deal, incidentally, but that’s another story). Now current federal policy in this area is far from perfect, but unlike the assault weapons ban, what we have right now really does point the way toward a better solution. If gun owners had assurance that liberals are trying to establish a gun registry so that we can keep track of guns so that we can stop felons from buying them rather than trying to keep track of guns so that we can know where to find them in your house when we finally get enough votes for that nationwide gun ban, then it would become a lot more politically feasible to improve current policy.

Last but by no means least, gun control is bad politics and, at best, middling policy. The nation’s crime problem should not be dismissed lightly, but compared to other problems we face, it simply isn’t that big a deal. If you had to trade making zero progress on crime control in exchange for making progress on health care and education, you’d be crazy not to take the deal. And what’s more, there are lots of ways to make progress on crime control (the easiest step would be better drug treatment and supervision of parolees) that have nothing to do with gun regulation. The Post’s use of the term “weapons of destruction” to describe the prohibited firearms, meanwhile, is a piece of silly rhetoric worthy of the Bush administration and not of a great newspaper; one that directly recalls the president’s newfound concern about Saddam’s “weapons of mass murder.” In Rwanda they killed an awful lot of people with farm implements; that such things can “destroy” and wreak “mass murder” is neither here nor there from the point of view of designing a regulatory regime.