Critics of President Clinton's decision last week to permanently ban the import of 58 types of military-style assault weapons dismiss it as a meaningless political gesture that won't effect crime and that deprives shooting enthusiasts of guns no different from hunting rifles. Worse, they claim, the Jonesboro, Ark. school massacre was commited using weapons unaffected by Clinton's ban, so his announcement coming so soon after the tragedy is nothing more than political opportunism.
To be sure, assault weapons sales constitute only about 1 percent of America's 200 million gun arsenal. But an Urban Institute study found that such weapons accounted for 8 percent of guns at crime scenes over a seven-year period. The Violence Policy Center reports that 1 in 10 law-enforcement officers killed in the line of duty in 1995 died from an assault weapon. So-called "sporterized" assault weapons (changed slightly to legalize their import) were used in almost 1,200 crimes in 1995 and 1996.
Currently available assault weapons fire a round with each pull of the trigger - no different from a typical hunting rifle. So why the fuss? The answer lies in design. The differences between hunting and assault rifles, dismissed as "cosmetic," are central to assault weapons' purpose. Unlike hunting rifles, assault weapons are shorter, lighter weight, have pistol grips or thumbhole stocks, folding barrels, barrel shrouds, bayonet mountings, threaded barrels, and can accept magazines holding more than 10 bullets. All of these features are combat-related. The lighter weight, compact design, and pistol grips give the ability to "spray fire" - often from the hip.
Indeed, the companies that produce such weapons market them for these very capabilities. No self-respecting hunter bags a deer by laying down a field of fire. The government has every interest in restricting such weapons.
The fatal gunfire that killed five and wounded 11 in Jonesboro, Ark. came mostly from an M-1 carbine replica and a Remington .30-06 hunting rifle. Neither weapon is considered an assault rifle, but public outrage over the massacre has undoubtedly fueled support for Clinton's import ban, even though consideration of the ban began last fall.
If the timing of Clinton's decision is opportunistic, it is nevertheless justifiable on its merits. Legitimate hunting weapons, specifically protected in the 1994 federal ban on certain assault weapons, deserve protection, as does the hunting and sporting tradition. Excessive firepower in the wrong hands does not.
Clinton correctly asserts that assault weapons, for which no sporting use exists, pose an unnecessary and unjustifiable threat to the public.
Renaming the Israeli Uzi "sporter" mocks those who use legitimate weapons for legitimate purposes. The common theme uniting the import ban and the Jonesboro massacre is legitimate guns in legitimate hands. This objective should be the mutual goal of government and gun users.
* Robert J. Spitzer is a political science professor at the State University of New York, Cortland. The second edition of his book, "The Politics of Gun Control," will be published this fall by Chatham House.