Are so-called "Assault Weapons" a Threat to Police Officers?

By David B. Kopel

Sept./Oct. 1997, The Law Enforcement Trainer, the official publication of the American Society for Law Enforcement Training. More by Kopel on "assault weapons."

Handgun Control, Inc., would have you believe so, and an article in the Jan-Feb issue of this magazine repeated some of their claims nearly verbatim. But it ain't necessarily so.

Here are the facts:

In November 1995, Handgun Control, Inc. put out a "study" titled "Cops Under Fire." The study claims that 13% of police officers killed from January 1994 through September 1995 were shot with "assault weapons." HCI also wrote that in 23% of the homicides, the perpetrator's gun could use a magazine holding more than ten rounds.

But these statistics appear to have been doctored. Using the FBI's annual report, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, I found several incidents in 1994 (the 1995 edition of the report hasn't been produced yet) for which the HCI data was inaccurate: the wrong model gun was listed, and the real gun was not banned by the 1994 federal "assault weapon" law; the gun was taken from a police officer; or the murder was perpetrated by a police officer against another officer.

The logical implication of HCI's counting crimes by polices or crimes with guns taken from police is that police officers should not be allowed to own guns with magazines of more than 10 rounds.

For the cases involving a gun which could hold a magazine of more than 10 rounds, HCI did not specify whether the perpetrator's gun actually did have such a magazine. Nor did HCI specify how many shots were actually fired. Of the 13 incidents for 1994, the FBI report specifies that more than 10 shots were fired in only one incident.

In truth, so-called "assault weapons" account for a small percentage of police homicides. From 1975 through 1992, there were 1,534 police officers feloniously murdered in the United States. Over these, 16–slightly over 1 percent–were killed with "assault weapons."

California was the state of origin for the "assault weapon" hoax. In the spring of 1989, the gun prohibition lobbies convinced the state legislature to enact an "assault weapon" prohibition by claiming that police officers were being mowed down right and left by "assault weapons" in that state. But according to a study published in the Journal of California Law Enforcement in 1991, "It is interesting to note, in the current hysteria over semi-automatic and military look-alike weapons, that the most common weapon used to murder police officers was that of the .38 Special and the .357 Magnum revolver." The Journal found that calibers for military-style shoulder weapons accounted for eight percent of officer fatalities. (Of course not every fatality involving a such a caliber necessarily involved an "assault weapon.")

Looking at the broader picture of all gun use in crime, it becomes clear that "assault weapons" are a minor part of the problem. Police gun seizure data from around the nation finds that "assault weapons" account for less than 2% of guns seized by the police; more typically, they account for less than 1%. (Data from 24 major jurisdictions are provided in chapter 4 of my book Guns: Who Should Have Them?)

According the gun prohibition lobbies, Los Angeles is the "assault weapon" capital of the world, where scores of drive-by shootings every year perpetrated with these evil guns. But a study in the New England Journal of Medicine investigated the 583 drive-by shootings in Los Angeles in 1991 in which a person under the age of eighteen was shot at. "Use of an assault weapon was documented in one incident." (H. Range Hutson, Deirdre Anglin, and Michael J. Pratts, "Adolescents and Children Injured or Killed in Drive-By Shootings in Los Angeles," New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 330 [1994], p. 326.)

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Dwight Van Horn is the firearms examiner for South-Central L.A., the most gang-ridden spot in the United States. "I deal with firearms-identification experts at departments all over the country," he says, "and I can tell you that the claim that AK-47s or something called an 'assault weapon'–which is simply a fabricated political and media term meant to vilify firearms that look like military arms but actually means whatever someone wants it to mean–is widely used by criminals, isn't true and never has been true."

The most recent research about "assault weapon" use in crimes against civilians and the police is a March 1997 report from the Urban Institute, under contract from the U.S. Department of Justice. The study looked at data from January 1992 through May 1996. There were 276 officer homicides, of which 20 (seven percent) were verified to have involved an "assault weapon." In the first half of 1996, there were no "assault weapon" homicides, a fact which some would interpret to suggest that the "assault weapon" ban is working.

On the other hand, there were also no "assault weapon" homicides of police in 1992, a year when there was no federal ban in place.

Indeed, almost half (9 of 20) of the "assault weapon" shootings occurred in 1994. In that year, the ban went into effect in September, but President Clinton and gun prohibition lobby were generating "assault weapon" publicity throughout the year.

We know that television shows such as Miami Vice pique interest in particular exotic models of firearms. Is it possibility that all the publicity that President Clinton, Attorney General Reno, and others gave to "assault weapons" in 1994–making wild claims about what great "cop-killer" weapons they were–may have attracted the interest of some potential cop killers?

The Urban Institute report concluded, "In sum, police officers are rarely murdered with assault weapons." The study noted that "assault weapons" were more likely to be used in murders of police officers than in other murders, but not have sufficient information to conclude why this was so. ("Cop-killer" publicity is certainly one possibility.)

The study said that it was possible, but not proven, that the Clinton gun ban might affect the proportion of "assault weapons" used in police homicides. The study did not attempt to investigate whether any possible shift from "assault weapons" to other guns had resulted in fewer law enforcement deaths.

If "assault weapon" bans did work, it is unlikely that police or the public would be safer. The federal "assault weapon" law does not define "assault weapons" based on rate of fire, velocity, bullet weight, or any other measure of lethality. Rather the ban is based on cosmetic features, such as whether the gun has a bayonet lug, or whether the a rifle's pistol grip protrudes "conspicuously."

If criminals were bayoneting police officers, banning bayonet-capable guns might have some impact. But an aesthetic exercise like the federal "assault weapon" ban is unlikely to make a real difference on the streets.

More fundamentally, the fact that some criminals use a particular type of gun against the police is no justification for banning the possession of that gun by law-abiding citizens. In contrast to "assault weapons," handguns really are used in many attacks against police. But the misuse of handguns by criminals is no reason to disarm the 99% of handgun owners who are law-abiding–any more than the occasional misuse of guns by criminal police officers is a reason to disarm law-abiding police.

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