California Senator Dianne Feinstein (D) has incited the fury of the right and won the hearts of progressives with her recent push to reinstate the currently expired federal assault weapons ban in the wake of the tragedy at Newtown, Conn. The California senator’s bill, to be introduced in January, seeks to amp up the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban and “stop the sale, transfer, importation and manufacturing of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition feeding devices.”
Feinstein’s measure goes beyond its 1994 predecessor in a number of areas:
- It bans “120 specifically-named firearms”
- It lowers the threshold for qualifying assault weapons from having to have “two or more military-style characteristics,” like bayonet holders, to just “one military-style characteristic”
- It bans high-capacity magazines and targets assault weapons and handguns that have the capacity to carry more than 10 rounds
- It would require grandfathered-in owners of assault weapons to undergo background checks
The controversy of the gun-control push isn’t new and isn’t likely to dissipate, even following mass shooting after mass shooting across the nation. But while the complexity of preventing such tragedies is evident, and one law will not ensure a completely safety from mass shootings, it is clear that attacking the easiest part of the multi-faceted and wide-ranging social violence problem (namely weapons made specifically for causing such mass casualties) is necessary before all else. Feinstein’s measure is a step in the right direction, but for its high cost in political capital, more aggressive legislation is needed that both protects the rights of qualified citizens to own firearms while completing the process of putting in place smart, effective, and comprehensive gun control regulation — one with teeth — that address the existing loopholes in the proposed legislation.
The right of the government to put in place limits on the ownership of firearms has long been established by legal precedent, with the Supreme Court overturning outright bans on the right to keep firearms for self-defense but backing the right of the state to enforce sensible and reasonable restrictions.
Banning assault weapons designed for armies is smart, sensible, and reasonable; prominent conservatives are even behind such a measure. But as a study of the impact of the 1994 assault weapons ban by the University of Pennsylvania showed, a ban isn’t enough to make a meaningful difference in gun violence. It cited the continued use of “large capacity magazines” (LCMs) as offsetting the 17%—72% drop in gun violence in various areas attributed to banning assault weapons. Feinstein’s measure works to address this problem by banning the continued sale of LCMs. But as the lesson of 1994 showed, an outright ban on all LCMs in civilian use (both on the production and sale side and the current-ownership side) would have a real impact on lowering gun violence.
Feinstein’s measure also fails to address a critical weakness in gun regulation to date — the ease with which one can acquire a firearm and evade some of the more stringent background checks, simply by making the purchase at a gun show. Guns sold through silenced dealers, and thus requiring a thorough background investigation for the purchaser, account for only 60% of gun purchases in the nation, and only six states (Calif., Co., Ill., N.Y., Ore., R.I.) require universal background checks, according to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. Truly effective regulation needs to address this hole in the system that has been shown to feed directly into gun violence.
If loopholes are the undoing of a truly effective gun law, then the “military-style characteristics” addition to the ban is the biggest hole of them all. The 1994 law saw clever schemes by the gun lobby to get around the weak provision to ban only weapons with “two or more military-style characteristics” or modifications; gun sellers would simply remove the modifications and sell the “naked” assault weapon. Feinstein’s bill attempts to clamp down on many of these loopholes, but still only targets guns with “one military-style characteristics.” If we’re banning the gun, and not the modification, then actually ban the gun and not the cosmetic additions.
Make no mistake, Senator Feinstein’s bill to reinstate the assault weapons ban is badly needed and a solid response to the recent outbreak of unacceptable gun tragedies. But it can — and must — be better. The politics will be hard, and the gun lobby will continue to throw everything into ensuring the wide availability of mass-killing instruments. We also know that gun control is of course not the end-all-be-all to these social issues. By integrating a follow-on comprehensive bill that addresses the above measures as part of a larger crime reduction bill with elements such as improvements in mental health, federal funding for gun buy-back measures, and other elements, Democrats would be putting the political pressure on gun-advocates and ensure the best chance of passage. For now, we as a nation have to act to strike at the heart of gun violence. The American people should press Congress to pass the assault weapons ban — and then push for more.