Target Assault-Style Weapons

`THEY had better guns than we did." That is how one agent with the United States Treasury's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) accounts for the tragic turn that events have taken outside of Waco, Texas.

It is a lament that resonates with many in law enforcement circles who daily deal with crimes involving the use of assault-style weapons; it should be heeded by banning them. Yet some recent efforts by cities and states to ban semiautomatic assault weapons either have failed or are in trouble.

In Colorado, the National Rifle Association has won a court challenge to Denver's ban on semiautomatic weapons. After intense lobbying, the New Jersey General Assembly overrode Gov. Jim Florio's veto of a bill that repealed a 1990 ban on possession, sale, and manufacture of semiautomatic weapons.

On one level, it is hard to see how measures preventing the sale, manufacture, or possession of semiautomatic assault weapons would have prevented the standoff outside Waco, given the group's alleged possession of automatic weapons and munitions such as hand grenades, which are illegal. It was this growing arsenal that led the ATF to raid the compound of Vernon Howell and his Branch Davidian religious group.

Yet gun-control efforts aimed at assault-type semiautomatic weapons do stand a chance of reducing the less widely publicized mayhem that occurs almost daily in many American cities.

The notion that law-abiding citizens have a right to own assault-style weapons originally designed for fighting wars has little appeal. If the idea is to protect someone's "right" to lay rapid-fire waste to bottles and cans on the "south 40" on weekends, that seems a personal thrill society can do without. Hunting? Hunters who need more than one or two shots to do their work shouldn't pull the trigger in the first place.

The Waco incident has led Texas Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock to suggest that his state consider a ban on assault-style weapons. A poll last year indicated that despite Texans' overall support for private gun ownership, 72 percent favored a ban on semiautomatic weapons. His suggestion deserves support.

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