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Time to resurrect the assault weapons ban

Thursday, January 27, 2011; 8:03 PM

THE RESULT of a Post investigation into the effectiveness of the federal assault weapons ban is both encouraging and heartbreaking. Encouraging because the ban appears to have worked, at least as far limiting the proliferation of high-capacity magazines; heartbreaking because the use of such magazines in crimes rose dramatically after the ban was irresponsibly allowed to lapse.

Jared Lee Loughner is alleged to have used such a magazine to fire some 31 rounds in a matter of seconds, a brief but intense spurt of violence just outside Tucson that left six people dead and 13 others wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). Mr. Loughner was prevented from inflicting even more harm with other high-capacity magazines in his possession only because bystanders tackled him.

The assault weapons ban was intended in part to prohibit the sale of high-capacity magazines manufactured after the law was enacted in 1994. But the ban's impact has been difficult to assess in part because most law enforcement agencies do not separately record the use of high-capacity magazines in crime reports.

The Post's David S. Fallis and James V. Grimaldi mined a relatively obscure Virginia database to offer fresh insights on the ban's effect in the commonwealth. Roughly 15,000 guns equipped with magazines with 11 bullets or more - the federal definition of high-capacity - have been seized by Virginia police since 1993; some 2,000 of these weapons were equipped with clips that held 30 or more bullets.

The number of high-capacity magazines confiscated by Virginia law enforcement officers dropped after the ban's enactment - an indication that fewer of these weapons were in circulation. In 2004, the ban's last year, guns with high-capacity magazines constituted 10 percent of the weapons recovered by police.

Just as the ban appeared to take hold, the law was allowed to expire, setting in motion a dramatic reversal the following year when law enforcement officers in Virginia began encountering an increasing number of high-capacity magazines. By 2010, 22 percent of seized crime guns were equipped with high-capacity magazines.

Jared Lee Loughner appears to be a deeply disturbed young man who should never have been able to obtain a weapon of any kind, let alone the kind that easily transforms a lone gunman into a mass murderer. The data from Virginia show that the federal ban worked. Lawmakers should not wait for another Tucson-like tragedy to resurrect this common-sense law.

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