By the time you read this column, it is highly probable that the federal ban on semiautomatic assault weapons will have expired and once again these weapons will begin to flood our communities and threaten our officers.
First passed in 1994, the assault weapons ban required domestic gun manufacturers to stop production of semiautomatic assault weapons and ammunition magazines holding more than 10 rounds except for military or police use. Imports of assault weapons not already banned by administrative action under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush were also halted.
Since the law was enacted, the ban has proven remarkably effective in reducing the number of crimes involving assault weapons. Since 1994 the proportion of assault weapons traced to crimes has fallen by a dramatic 66 percent. Public opinion polls continue to prove that more than 75 percent of the public supports a reauthorization of the current ban.
The IACP has been a strong supporter of the assault weapons ban since 1992, and our membership approved a resolution calling for its reauthorization at our 2003 conference. The membership took this action because we, as law enforcement executives, understand that semiautomatic assault weapons pose a grave risk to our officers and the communities they are sworn to protect.
It is deeply troubling that Congress and the administration have so far failed to reauthorize this critically important legislation.
Assault weapons are routinely the weapons of choice for gang members and drug dealers. They are regularly encountered in drug busts and are all too often used against our officers. In fact, one in five law enforcement officers slain in the line of duty between January 1, 1998, and December 31, 2001, was killed with an assault weapon, according to “Officer Down,” a report from the Violence Policy Center. The weapons in question—including the Colt AR-15, a semiautomatic version of the M-16 machine gun used by our armed forces, the Uzi, and the Tec-9 pistol, whose manufacturer’s advertisements hailed its “fingerprint-resistant” finish—have been used in countless murders such as the Stockton schoolyard and Columbine High School shootings.
Opponents of the assault weapons ban often argue that the ban only outlawed certain weapons because of their “cosmetic features” and not because they are inherently more dangerous than other weapons. This is simply not true.
While most rifles are designed to be fired from the shoulder and depend upon the accuracy of a precisely aimed projectile, semiautomatic assault weapons are designed to maximize lethal effects through a rapid rate of fire. Assault weapons are designed to be spray-fired from the hip, and because of their design a shooter can maintain control of the weapon even while firing many rounds in rapid succession.
The cosmetic features opponents of the ban point to are actually military features such as silencers, flash suppressors, pistol grips, folding stocks, and bayonets that were designed specifically to increase the lethality of these weapons and make them more concealable. Many come equipped with large ammunition magazines allowing 50 or more bullets to be fired without reloading.
Weapons of this nature serve no legitimate sporting or hunting purposes and have no place in our communities. Unless Congress acts, the firearms of choice for terrorists, drug dealers, and gang members will be back on our streets—where, once again, our officers will be outgunned by criminals.
If Congress and the administration fail to reauthorize the assault weapons ban, it will be up to the law enforcement community to demand that it be reinstated. Over the last decade, we have made significant progress in our efforts to reduce violent crime rates. The ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines has been a crucial component of our national crime-fighting strategy.
We must not surrender the gains that we have made.
It is vital that we, as police chiefs, take a leading role in this effort. We know the tremendous harm that these weapons can inflict on our communities and we know what the proliferation of these weapons will mean to our officers. We need to be leaders, both in word and in deed, and we must make every effort to ensure that our elected officials understand that failure to reauthorize the assault weapons ban is a significant step back for law enforcement and public safety
Our communities and the officers we lead expect this of us; our duty demands it.