Obama’s Unserious Gun Proposals

I wrote this post for The Corner, in an ecumenical spirit:

President Obama unveiled his proposals to combat gun violence today, and they turned out to be anti-climactic. There were no surprises, unless you expected him to mention the culture of violence fostered by Democratic Party donors in Hollywood and the video game industry. He didn’t.

The administration’s gun proposals turned out to be retreads. Obama could have tried something new, perhaps something more sweeping: a ban on all semiautomatic rifles, perhaps, or even a ban that includes some handguns. Instead, the White House paper that explains the president’s proposals says the administration wants to ban “military-style assault weapons,” using that phrase repeatedly. Obama, too, used the phrase “military-style assault weapons” at least four times during his press conference today.

So, what is a “military-style assault weapon?” The military uses rifles that have automatic capabilities. The lowest-level rifle assigned to American soldiers, the M-4, has two settings: semiautomatic, where you pull the trigger and it fires one bullet, and burst, where you pull the trigger and it fires a burst of three bullets. Other weapons used by the military are fully automatic, which means that as long as you pull the trigger, they keep firing.

But all such weapons are already illegal, and have been since the 1930s, unless you have a special permit from ATF. So when the Obama administration refers to “military-style” weapons, it is not talking about rifles with military capabilities. It is talking about the aesthetic qualities that make a firearm look similar to an M-4 or other military weapon, even though in fact it is merely a semiautomatic rifle–you pull the trigger, and it fires one bullet.

Which means that we are back to 1994, when the “assault weapons” ban was passed. Congress defined “assault weapons” in a laughable manner: the law was based not on the capabilities of the weapon in question, but on a series of mostly-aesthetic features that made the rifle look vaguely military to the ill-informed. Today, the administration tried to extricate itself from this confusion:

Reinstate and strengthen the ban on assault weapons: The shooters in Aurora and Newtown used the type of semiautomatic rifles that were the target of the assault weapons ban that was in place from 1994 to 2004. That ban was an important step, but manufacturers were able to circumvent the prohibition with cosmetic modifications to their weapons. Congress must reinstate and strengthen the prohibition on assault weapons.

Actually, the guns used in Aurora and Newtown may very well have been legal under the ill-fated “assault weapons” ban. Manufacturers were “able to circumvent the prohibition with cosmetic modifications” because the ban was defined in cosmetic terms in the first place. So, how does the administration propose to “strengthen the prohibition on assault weapons?” By clearly defining a category of firearms to be banned, like, say, all semiautomatic rifles? No! The ban, Obama tells us, will extend only to “military-style assault weapons.” Which means we are back in the land of the aesthetic.

It is important to understand that the “assault weapons” ban was one of the least effective pieces of legislation in history, which is why hardly anyone wanted to renew it when it expired in 2004. According to Department of Justice statistics, during the years from 1993 through 2001–not exactly the years when the assault weapons ban was in effect, but close enough for this purpose–there were an average of 611 homicides with rifles per year. After the assault weapons ban expired in 2004, liberals no doubt expected that murders using rifles would explode. They didn’t. Instead, they declined. By 2010, there were only 358 homicides that involved rifles–all rifles, not just “assault weapons”–barely more than half the rate when the assault weapons ban was in effect.

Rifles, in general, are one of the least popular murder weapons. More than five times as many people are killed with knives. More are killed with blunt instruments. Twice as many are killed with bare hands. As an anti-violence program, focusing on a subset of rifles is a joke.

The Obama administration’s other gun control measure is equally silly. It proposes to ban magazines that hold more than ten bullets. There are at least four problems with this as a violence-prevention measure: 1) There are countless millions of magazines that hold more than ten bullets in existence–they are actually normal capacity magazines, not “large capacity magazines”–and they will be easily available more or less forever. 2) Magazines are simple devices, made primarily from sheet metal and a spring, which can be produced in many thousands of handy Americans’ garages. 3) Isn’t it odd that the administration aspires only to limit the victims of a mass shooting incident to ten? If the best that gun control can do is limit the number of victims to low double figures, shouldn’t we be looking for a more effective approach? 4) It takes less than two seconds to eject an empty magazine and replace it with a full one, so a limitation of ten bullets per magazine, even if enforceable, is meaningless.

The inescapable conclusion is that the Obama administration’s gun control proposals are not really intended to do anything about the problem of violence–which is, by the way, steadily declining in the U.S. Perhaps this is not surprising, as neither the ban on “military-style assault weapons” nor the magazine limitation has any chance of getting through Congress.

So why has the Obama administration come up with these tired, already-failed proposals? Not so that they can pass, and certainly not so that if passed, they would be effective. Rather, Obama’s gun control initiatives are part of his permanent campaign. The objective is to rile up the Democratic Party’s faithful so they will be motivated to turn out in November 2014. President Obama has always been more interested in campaigning than governing. Beyond that, he knows he can do little to transform America unless the Democrats capture the House next year. So today’s proposals, pointless as they may seem, are part of a political strategy–not to convert the majority, but to motivate the minority.

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