With the federal assault weapons ban sunsetting on Monday at midnight, the gun-control movement has a lot to fear, but not what most people think. Despite claims that letting the 10-year-old ban on some semiautomatic weapons expire will result in a surge in gun crimes and police killings, the fact is that letting the law expire will probably just show the uselessness of gun-control regulations. A year from now it will be obvious to everyone that all the horror stories about the ban -- a cornerstone of the gun-control movement -- were wrong.
Life without the ban is being painted as a frightening state of affairs. Sarah Brady, one of the nation's leading gun-control advocates, warns that "our streets are going to be filled with AK-47s and Uzis."
Ratcheting up the fear factor to an entirely new level, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) claims the ban is one of "the most effective measures against terrorism that we have."
Yet, despite the rhetoric, there is not a single published academic study showing that the ban has reduced any type of violent crime. Even research funded by the Justice Department under the Clinton administration concluded only that the ban's effect on gun violence "has been uncertain." When those same authors released their updated report in August looking at crime data up through 2000 -- the first six full years of the law -- they stated, "We cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation's recent drop in gun violence."
The reason for these findings is simple: There is nothing unique about the guns that are banned under the law. Though the phrase "assault weapon" conjures up images of the rapid-fire machine guns used by the military, in fact the weapons covered by the ban function the same as any semiautomatic hunting rifle; they fire the exact same bullets with the exact same rapidity and produce the exact same damage as hunting rifles.
The firing mechanisms in semiautomatic and machine guns are completely different. The entire firing mechanism of a semiautomatic gun has to be gutted and replaced to turn it into a machine gun. This law had nothing to do with machine guns.
In recent weeks, at least one gun-control group has begun to change its tune. A spokesperson for the Violence Policy Center said, "If the existing assault weapons ban expires, I personally do not believe it will make one whit of difference one way or another in terms of our objective, which is reducing death and injury and getting a particularly lethal class of firearms off the streets. So if it doesn't pass, it doesn't pass." The center argues that the law involved only "minor changes in appearance."
Why the sudden conversion? Probably because the group knows its credibility is on the line.
A year from now, when it becomes obvious to everyone that all the hype about a resurgence of "assault weapons" was wrong, gun-control advocates want to be able to claim that they never thought the law really mattered.
Too bad they didn't admit this a decade ago.
John R. Lott Jr., a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of "More Guns, Less Crime" (University of Chicago, 2000).