There is something I forgot to mention in my Sunday column about California’s gun laws and their failure to stop the San Bernardino terrorist attack last week: I supported California’s 1989 assault weapon ban. The bill passed after a vicious elementary schoolyard shooting in Stockton left five children dead. The shooter had an AK-47. Sacramento passed an assault weapon ban that I believed would save lives because it would limit the speed with which a deranged thug could kill.
Fact is, I knew next to nothing about guns. I wrongly equated semi-automatic weapons with automatic weapons. I wrongly thought the guns banned in the 1989 law were faster than other semi-automatic long guns. I felt virtuous because at least I was supporting something.
In 1994, Washington adopted a national assault weapon ban. As the law was about to sunset in 2004, a Department of Justice evaluation determined that if the ban were renewed, then its effects on gun violence would be “small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.” That’s in part because the banned firearms were used in about 2 percent of crimes before the law was enacted, according to most studies.
In his Sunday night speech on the San Bernardino attack, President Barack Obama told America that to fight terrorism, Washington has to make it “harder for people to buy powerful assault weapons like the ones that were used in San Bernardino.” Methinks he wants some partisan cage-rattling to distract from the frightening prospect of terror in the homeland. On Saturday, a New York Times front-page editorial opined likewise. The editorial noted that European bans have not stopped terrorist attacks, “but at least those countries are trying.”
That’s the spirit of the assault weapon ban community; it is a good thing to enact laws that don’t work, because it shows you really care. Pat yourself on the back quickly because you’ve just chased other Americans — people who fear that this is an early step in a march against their Second Amendment rights — to their local gun dealer to buy what they think you want to ban.
For the record, I don’t think it’s a good thing if more people own guns. Irresponsible owners leave loaded weapons where children can find them. Also, more than 20,000 Americans kill themselves with guns annually.
But this is important: There has been “a remarkable decrease in violent crime and gun crime in the U.S. since the early 1990s, even though the number of firearms has increased by about 10 million every year,” Center for Research in Crime and Justice Director James Jacobs told Time magazine. “There’s no simple correspondence between the number of firearms in private hands and the amount of gun crime, and I often find it somewhat strange that there seems to be a perception that things are worse than ever when, in reality, things are really better than they’ve been for decades.”
So what’s my plan? A few readers have asked me. To start, I don’t believe in enacting laws that do not work. I know what did work — the heroic San Bernardino Police Department. Officers arrived at the scene in four minutes. A surveillance team found the terrorists’ rented van; the shootout that followed very likely prevented another deadly attack. The officers’ training saved lives. The key is to know your enemy. The enemy is Islamic extremism, not American gun owners.
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