Media Assault Weapons

I think it's important to remember that the fight for our rights is constant. We will always be at it. Here's something I wrote 15 years ago for Guns and Ammo magazine about the end of the "assault weapon ban" at that time. Note the similarities to what's going on now, particularly the dishonesty of the media.


For all those who swore the Clinton Gun Ban (aka the “assault weapon” ban) would never sunset, you are forgiven. Who among us did not have our doubts, given that since 1968, it seems that the momentum has remained with those whose stated goal is to remove firearms from the United States of America.

On September 14, 2004, the air was a bit sweeter, carrying the distinct aroma of freedom. Of course, we know that the ban was largely symbolic, since most of gun makers complied with the law by removing the prohibited accessories, but it was exactly this symbolism which was, and remains, so important. Somewhere, a journalism school should study the media treatment of this issue as a way of explaining the power of the Big Lie and its effectiveness at moving popular opinion.

A quick recap, for those who just woke up. In 1994 a Congress which was controlled by the Democratic Party passed (barely) the so-called Assault Weapon Ban, and President Bill Clinton signed it into law. To get the votes needed, the Democratic leaders of Congress included a provision in the law which was a death sentence. If Congress did not renew the ban, it would sunset (expire) in 10 years. Josh Sugarman, of the Violence Policy Center, was quoted as saying that the public didn’t know the difference between semi-auto and full-auto rifles, and the gun control movement could take advantage of that by convincing them that these rifles were, in fact, machine guns. He was right. Of course, that is possible only if the anti-gun-rights forces have the full cooperation of the media.

In the months before the 1994 vote, CNN and other networks frequently showed video of machine guns being fired when the talking heads were describing the debates on the “assault weapon” ban (AWB). Each time, the networks were informed that there were no machine guns in ban. The networks didn’t care. They wanted the ban, and they were only too eager to show misleading footage to help confuse and frighten the public.

After passage of the AWB, and through the next 10 years, the public remained convinced that this was a ban on machine guns. Despite being told dozens and hundreds of times that this was not the case, the television networks and major newspapers around the country kept hammering this lie into the public psyche. This brainwashing had the desired effect, as witnessed by polls which showed that as high as 70 percent of the public favored the continuation of a ban on these rifles.

Should anyone not be clear on the activism portrayed by the mainstream media on this issue, one need only watch the television coverage as we approached the deadline for the expiration of this gun ban. Months prior to it, CNN was caught, yet again, falsifying reports. On that occasion, reporter John Zarella showed a police officer shooting one of the banned rifles into cinder blocks. The blocks were blown apart. When the officer shot the rifle which was legal to own under the ban (supposedly the “safer” rifle), the cinder blocks went unscratched. Both rifles shot the same ammunition, the same bullets going the same velocity, but because (I guess) one rifle did not have a means of mounting a bayonet, the bullets became harmless when leaving the barrel.

This faked story would have stood as fact had not CNN been interviewing Wayne LaPierre of the NRA in a live shoot the next day. Since it was live and not taped, Wayne was able to make his statements without being edited. He called for the immediate dismissal of Zarella because of his faked story. Obviously the police officer was not aiming at the cinder blocks when shooting the rifle which could be sold under the ban. CNN had a conniption fit, proclaiming that their award-winning reporter would never do such a thing. Days later the network admitted that the report was not accurate.  Yeah, right.

And yet . . . . They just kept doing it. ABC News, in its nightly news program showed video of the North Hollywood bank robbery, where the criminals used full-auto rifles in a shootout with the police. The ABC program “Nightline” also used the footage, and both programs warned that these kind of automatic rifles would be back “on the streets” if the ban was lifted. Of course, it was a lie. Not a mistake, mind you. Unless the folks at ABC have the brain power of a three-year old, they realize the difference between full-auto and semi-auto, because the NRA has told them dozens of times. If you know the difference, and continue mislead the viewers, you are a liar.

Remember Sugarman’s advice? He said it would be possible to mislead the public about rifles which look alike, but which are not the same. The media decided that it would be in the public The assault on firearms is unrelenting. Fifteen years ago, Tom Gresham wrote a piece that is so familiar.good to ban these guns, even if it meant lying, so, they lied.

Was Zarella at CNN the liar? I don’t know. Maybe his editor was the liar. Someone sure was.

In the weeks right before the law expired, the editorials were amazing in their stupidity (facts wrong and twisted logic) and in their similarity (using Brady Center press releases). For example, there’s this: “The expiration of the ban also is a concern to the Long Beach Police Department. Detective Malcolm Evans, with the Violent Crimes Detail, said that police have seen “a resurgence” in the last few months in the use of assault weapons, particularly in the gang-related crime that continually plagues parts of the city.”

So, the ban wasn’t working when it was in effect?

Some reports were pretty much over the top – “This week's lapse of the 10-year federal ban on assault weapons is great news - for people who make and sell the weapons and for gangs and criminals who get a thrill out of military-style weapons. Police, who are the usual target of such weapons, are not so happy. You shouldn't be either. There is absolutely no reason on earth for those weapons to be legal anywhere in the United States.”

Note that I’m not providing any publicity by naming the morons writing this stuff. The columnists somehow take pride in hearing that they have been shown to be lazy researchers and even lazier thinkers. Go figure.

Of course, there was the usual parading of police politicians prattling platitudes to placate their party bosses.

Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton said, “They're weapons of murder. They're not weapons of hunting or collecting.”

Chief, you need to attend the national matches and watch hundreds of the best rifle shooters in and out of the military shooting these guns in competition.

"You need to keep police officers safe, and you need to keep citizens safe," said New Castle County police Chief Col. David McAllister. "I'm a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, but the founding fathers did not envision weapons that could fire 50, 60, 70 bullets in a matter of seconds. That was not their vision."

"They're ideal for committing crimes and for assaulting law enforcement,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, said of the previously illegal weapons. "... These weapons fire rounds that go through buildings.”

Karen Shaw, executive director of the California group Women Against Gun Violence, said, "But when it comes to assault weapons, we're against assault weapons. Period.” Shaw said there is no good reason for people to own the assault weapons, because they are only good for killing people, not animals. She calls them "the weapon of choice for criminals across the country."

Oh, Never Mind

When it became obvious that the gun ban would sunset, the comments from the gun banners, and then from their lackeys in the media, changed to a collective, “Oh, nevermind.”

First up was the Violence Policy Center, which was quoted as saying that there really would be no change in anything once the law expired. You see, the VPC said, all the law did was restrict some cosmetic accessories on rifles. While that is correct, and it’s what we gun rights activists had been saying for 10 years, it was strange to hear that from a group which wants all handguns banned, and which calls for hugely repressive controls on honest people owning guns.

Of course, they were setting up their defense. Even though they called for its passage, and said that the country needed this law to protect law enforcement officers from guns which spray bullets in all directions, these gun banners now said the law didn’t amount to much at all. These media-savvy anti-rights activists wanted to be able to say, when it later was clear that there was no increase in crime, that they knew that all along, and they were on record as saying that the law was just cosmetic, as were the items banned.        

Another interesting theme popped up in newspapers all over the country, leading one to wonder if it wasn’t from a talking-points page from one of the gun banning groups. This tact took the “Oh, never mind” dismissal of the defeat of this gun ban, and twisted it beyond recognition.

The reason, these reports said, that the federal “assault weapon” ban was ineffective was not because criminals rarely used these guns in crime anyway (less than 2 percent according to FBI figures). No, the reason the gun ban didn’t work is that it was so full of loopholes that it didn’t really keep any guns off the market. In this tortured logic, gun makers who removed the banned items (flash suppressors, etc.) as required by law, were somehow circumventing the law rather than complying with it. The manufacturers were doing exactly what the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms told them they had to do, but they were trying to get around the law by doing what the law required.

It makes my head hurt.

Dave Kopel has been writing about gun rights for decades, and is one of the best. He put an interesting spin on the expiration of the AWB.

“At midnight tonight, the federal ban on so-called "assault weapons" expires. As a constitutional moment, the expiration is as significant for the Second Amendment as the March 3, 1801, expiration of the Alien and Sedition Acts was for the First Amendment. These federal laws were not found unconstitutional by any court, but the laws expired in disgrace because our political system, as expressed through congressional elections, determined them to be infringements on the Bill of Rights.

“ As detailed by Leonard Levy in his book Origins of the Bill of Rights, the political defeat of the Alien and Sedition Acts resulted in a much broader, more speech-protective understanding of the First Amendment. It is possible that that the political defeat of the gun prohibition will have a similar effect.”

One note that must be made here is that there were many gun owners who believed that the NRA would not fight to kill the AWB. That may have been true in years past, but the current leaders vowed to defeat the ban, and they did. Put that in your notes somewhere, because the next time someone tells you the NRA doesn’t really represent gun owners, you can pull it out.

What was it all about?

If the AWB really did not ban any guns, and it didn’t, and if both sides understood that it really didn’t do anything more than knock off a few accessories, what the heck was all the fuss about?

Perception. It most certainly is true that “perception is reality” when it comes to public opinion, and in shaping public policy.

No one spelled it out more clearly than Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, a supporter of gun bans who wrote in 1996, "Passing a law like the assault weapons ban is a symbolic — purely symbolic — move in that direction. Its only real justification is not to reduce crime but to desensitize the public to the regulation of weapons in preparation for their ultimate confiscation."

The real purpose, and it was achieved in great measure, was and is to set up in the mind of the public that it is right and good for the government to ban the ownership of some guns. Once that aberration of freedom is established, any gun can be banned. Some shoot too fast (machine guns). Some are too ugly (“assault weapons”). Some are too small (“Saturday Night Specials”). Some are too big (50-caliber “sniper rifles”). In the end, the category of “too large” and “too small” are expanded toward each other until all guns are included.

This fight is not now and will never be over. We achieved a rare reversal. It is a huge success in that we have never overturned a federal gun law. One could hope this is the first in a significant string of useless gun laws removed from the books, but one would probably be dreaming.

The gun banners will be back – soon. They will say that the reason the “assault weapon” ban did not work is that it didn’t ban enough guns. Stay alert. Never let them lie without being challenged. A lie left unchallenged becomes the truth. ~ Tom

“The expiration of this law is temporary. It will be renewed: It is only a matter of how long it will take to renew it.” – Sarah Brady

Tom Gresham
Author, outdoorsman, gun rights activist, and firearms enthusiast for more than five decades, Tom Gresham hosts Tom Gresham's Gun Talk, the first nationally-syndicated radio show about guns and the shooting sports, and is also the producer and co-host of the Guns & Gear, GunVenture and First Person Defender television series.