Twenty years ago, not long after Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) federal “assault weapon” and “large” magazine “ban” took effect, CBS 60 Minutes reporter Lesley Stahl faced a dilemma. To help Feinstein make her case for a new ban that would cover more types of guns and more magazines, CBS would have to do something that doesn’t come naturally to gun control supporters. It would have to tell the truth.
The network hadn’t done so previously. In 1989, the year Senators Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) and Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) introduced the first “assault weapon” bills in Congress, CBS 48 Hours had tried to drum up public support for a ban by showing fully-automatic firearms being fired during a story about semi-automatic “assault weapons.” Interspersed with video footage of machine gun bursts and placards labeled “machine gun” for those who couldn’t figure it out for themselves, the subsequently discredited news anchor, Dan Rather, intoned, “Armed and deadly. . . . The right to bear arms. . . . Have we gone too far?”
In 1995, however, CBS did the right thing, even if for the wrong reason, by exposing the ineptitude with which Feinstein’s legislation had been written, and the patent dishonesty of its most enthusiastic supporter, President Bill Clinton.
Stahl showed footage of Clinton claiming the legislation “will finally ban these assault weapons from our streets.” On the one hand, she didn’t point out that most detachable-magazine, semi-automatic rifles were not “on the streets,” but were instead at the rifle range, in hunting fields, or locked behind closed doors in people’s homes. However, Stahl derided Clinton’s claim as “a good applause line.” Calling 1994 “the best year for the sales of assault weapons ever,” Stahl said, “these banned weapons are still everywhere.” She offered two reasons why.
First, firearms and magazines lawfully within the United States before the “ban” took effect on Sept. 13, 1994, were exempt. Second, the “ban” allowed manufacturers to continue making and selling “banned” firearms, provided that certain external attachments were omitted as the firearms came down the assembly line. The most common resulting firearm: an AR-15, absent its standard flash suppressor and bayonet mount. Over 730,000 AR-15s in this so-called “post-ban” configuration were made and sold during the 10 years the “ban” was on the books.
Stahl could have also mentioned, but didn’t, that magazines manufactured overseas before the law took effect were exempt as well. That exemption, according to the sponsor of the “ban” in the House of Representatives, Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), resulted in the importation of 50 million “large” magazines during the 10 years the “ban” was in effect.
For these reasons, the Violence Policy Center (VPC), the handgun prohibition group that in 1988 had conceived the idea of campaigning against “assault weapons” as a way to “strengthen the handgun restriction lobby,” complained that the “ban” was “badly flawed,” “a ban in name only,” and a “charade.”
In 2003, 2005 and 2007, then-Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation to impose a ban that would do what Feinstein’s 1994 legislation had failed to do, and in 2013 Feinstein introduced the same sort of legislation herself. Dishonestly, gun control supporters have said that the new legislation proposed to “reinstate” the earlier “ban,” and the media played along. In December 2012, USA Today said, “President Obama supports efforts to reinstate an assault weapons ban.” In January this year, the Washington Post said that President Obama’s gun control proposals included “reinstating the assault weapons ban.” A petition promoted online by Change.org in early 2013 urged the U.S. Senate to “Reinstate the federal assault weapons ban” and, after the Senate refused to do so, the New York Times reported, “Senate Vote 101 Rejects Feinstein Proposal to Reinstate Assault Weapons Ban.”
However, the new legislation didn’t propose to “reinstate” anything. Back in 1995, during the 60 Minutes piece, Feinstein had said, “If I could have gotten 51 votes in the Senate of the United States for an outright ban, picking up every one of them—‘Mr. and Mrs. America, turn ‘em all in,’ I would have done it.” Her 2013 legislation didn’t go that far, but it proposed to ban the manufacture and importation of all semi-automatic shotguns and all detachable-magazine semi-automatic rifles, regardless of their appearance, along with other categories of guns and magazines holding more than 10 rounds.
Maybe one day Lesley Stahl will cover the issue again. If she does, we hope she will make it clear that Americans now own tens of millions of semi-automatic shotguns and detachable-magazine semi-automatic rifles, an equal or larger number of semi-automatic handguns, and so many tens of millions of “large” magazines for semi-automatic rifles and handguns, and even some other firearms, that it’s pointless to guess their precise number. And, though Americans are now much better armed for their protection than when the first “assault weapon” and “large” magazine bans were proposed, the nation’s murder rate is at an all-time low.
Having seen 60 Minutes in action on another gun issue recently, however, we won’t hold our breath.