March 3, 2009 9:27AM

Holder’s “Assault Weapons” Folly

Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced that the Obama administration will seek a new federal “assault weapons” ban. This is an ill‐​advised policy that defies common sense.

The ban would be a revival of a law passed in the early years of the Clinton administration that expired in 2004. The law prohibited the sale of newly‐​manufactured magazines holding more than ten rounds of ammunition and having two of five cosmetic features on semi‐​automatic rifles. If you had a pistol grip and a detachable magazine, you couldn’t have a bayonet lug. More recent proposals have attempted to ban “barrel shrouds,” which the rest of the world calls “handguards” — the place you put your hand (instead of on a hot barrel) to prevent burning it while firing.

The emphasis here is on the cosmetic — any rational discussion of the issue ought to note that an “assault weapon” is any object you use to assault someone with — and banning the presence of a bayonet lug on the barrel of a rifle is senseless. Knives, tire irons, and bricks can all serve as “assault weapons.” This is an instance where quotation marks are not just appropriate, they are required.

Much of the public support for the law was based on a warping of the issue by gun control proponents to make the public believe that these firearms are machine guns. The fully automatic weapons that gun controllers use to push this agenda have been heavily regulated by the federal government since 1934 and not produced for civilian sale since 1986. Don’t take my word for it — here’s Josh Sugarmann of the Violence Policy Center: “The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi‐​automatic assault weapons‐​anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun‐​can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons.”

This intentional distortion has moved from advocacy groups to the attorney general’s office. Attorney General Eric Holder claims that the law is needed to counter Mexican Drug War violence, that American gun laws support “cartels employing automatic weapons and grenades.” Again, these devices are already illegal. It is far more likely that these weapons of war are from Mexican Army troops who deserted their posts for the higher pay that drug kingpins offer. The drug cartels have even taken the brazen step of setting up billboards meant to draw soldiers and police officers from their government jobs and into the drug trade. My colleague Ted Galen Carpenter wrote the book on how to deal with this issue. Holder’s War on Everything is not it.

It defies reason to think that multi‐​billion dollar criminal syndicates will not be able to get their hands on guns because of an American law banning cosmetic features and dictating lower magazine capacity. If the Mexican government gets better control of its own armaments, the cartels will simply go to the black market and buy the guns. Or make them. Guns are hand‐​crafted in the frontier provinces of Pakistan, and there is no reason that the cartels could not do the same in a country with far more industrial know‐​how. Three minutes of internet research will reveal plans to make fully automatic sub‐​machine guns, so enough capital to set up a machine shop and buy some sheet metal is all it would take.

The expired ban did not demonstrably impact crime anyway. The Centers for Disease Control conducted a study in 2003 that found no reduction of crime attributable to the law. This should come as no surprise, since most criminals’ weapons of choice are cheap, small caliber pistols. They traditionally dominate the ATF’s top crime gun list. There are some bad apples out there selling guns to people they know to be “straw buyers,” people who have clean records and re‐​sell the guns to those who don’t. Prosecute them. Enforce the existing laws before deciding to restrict the freedom of law‐​abiding citizens.

Predictably, both Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have temporarily quashed the issue. Let’s hope they keep it out of the halls of Congress, and focus instead on a sensible drug policy that impacts the demand created by an illicit drug market.

Pelosi and Reid realize that this proposal will do is come back to haunt Democrats in the 2010 mid‐​term elections, which historically trend against the president’s party anyway. Many Democrats attributed the flip of the House of Representatives to Republican hands in 1994 to the first “assault weapons” ban. Numerous experts believe that the reason Al Gore could not carry his home state of Tennessee in the 2000 election was his push for broader gun control. Blue Dog Democrats that ran on pro‐​gun platforms in conservative districts must be rolling their eyes. The rest of the country should do so as well, and send this proposal to the dustbin.

UPDATE: Since I started writing this, the “ban guns for Mexico’s sake” narrative has taken on a drumbeat’s tempo. 60 Minutes did this piece echoing the gun ban crusade, and the Wall Street Journal published this. Expect more of this nonsense.