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For Weapons Dealers, Ban Was 'Big Nothing'

Some Backers Agree Flaws Marred Effectiveness

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 13, 2004; Page A03

MONROE, Mich. -- Behind the desk at Magnum Force, where rifles line the walls and pistols pack the showcases, Terry Marlow can tap into his distributors' Web sites and see listings for guns that have been banned for a decade.

The prices are there in neat columns. All that's missing is the inventory, and something tells him the blanks will be filled in very soon.

Firearms students learn the proper stance while practicing to use an Uzi at the Front Sight shooting range outside Las Vegas in 2000. (Al Seib -- Los Angeles Times)

"I'm certain they've got thousands upon thousands upon thousands of them waiting to hit the market," Marlow said.

The 1994 federal assault weapons ban expires at midnight Monday and with it the prohibition against selling certain powerful semiautomatic firearms. Police chiefs, gun control organizations and a large number of Democratic politicians have lobbied for its renewal to no avail. The Republican-controlled Congress is content to see the law expire.

Yet what strikes gun dealers such as Marlow is that the rifles for sale this week will not be different in any significant way from the ones available for the past 10 years. Amid the furious political maneuvering of recent days is a situation little noticed by the public but one well known to dealers: The ban did not prevent many assault weapons from reaching the streets.

"It's a big nothing," said Gary Taepke, owner of Wolverine Shooting Sports, a gun range and firearms store in Brownstown, south of Detroit. "The ban didn't change anything. It is strictly cosmetic."

A surprising number of gun control advocates find themselves largely agreeing with that assessment, although they argue that the answer is not to end the ban but to strengthen it. The failings of the law, they contend, are the product of undesirable political compromises, not proof that their cause is wrong.

"We agree that the 1994 law is ineffective," said Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Washington-based Violence Policy Center, which estimates that U.S. companies produced more than 1 million assault-type weapons in the past decade. "Good public policy would be to institute an effective assault weapons ban."

Violence Policy Center research shows that at least 41 of 211 police officers killed from 1998 to 2001 were killed with assault weapons.

Shikha Hamilton, Detroit president of the Million Mom March, pointed to a modest decline since 1994 in the use of assault weapons to commit crimes.

"You're talking about lethal weapons that can kill a lot of people in a short amount of time," Hamilton said. "If the argument is that the ban is not perfect, I agree, but is it not better to stop part of the problem instead of opening the floodgates? The fact remains that the floodgates are set to open."

The last deluge of weapons buying coincided with the enactment of the 1994 ban, which prohibited the manufacture and sale of 19 types of semiautomatic firearms that had certain features that policymakers believed made them dangerous or popular with a dangerous crowd. These included flash suppressors, bayonet attachments, certain kinds of grips and high-capacity magazines.

But there was a time lag before the law took effect. Buyers took advantage between the law's passage and when it took effect, snapping up the soon-to-be-outlawed guns and magazines.

It was the most profitable year for Marlow, a longtime parole officer who started Magnum Force in a Monroe basement 20 years ago.

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