assault_weaponWASHINGTON – On the anniversary of the so-called “federal assault weapons” ban of 1994, the New York Times published a column explaining the very term “assault weapon” is one the “Democrats created” in the 1990s to ban “a politically defined category of guns.”

Lois Beckett, a reporter who covers gun violence for ProPublica, wrote, in the piece headlined “The Assault Weapon Myth,” that despite the popularity of the ban, “even gun control advocates acknowledge a larger truth: The law that barred the sale of assault weapons from 1994 to 2004 made little difference.”

Lois Beckett

Lois Beckett

“It turns out that big, scary military rifles don’t kill the vast majority of the 11,000 Americans murdered with guns each year,” she wrote. “Little handguns do. In 2012, only 322 people were murdered with any kind of rifle, F.B.I. data shows. The continuing focus on assault weapons stems from the media’s obsessive focus on mass shootings, which disproportionately involve weapons like the AR-15, a civilian version of the military M16 rifle. This, in turn, obscures some grim truths about who is really dying from gunshots.”

Even when the ban was enacted, the politically defined category of larger weapons figured in about 2 percent of gun crimes nationwide.

It’s a stunning admission from a media institution that still obsesses about gun violence – but it goes even further.

She quotes a Justice Department-funded study that concludes: “Should it (the ban) be renewed, the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.”

Perhaps because of media obsession about gun violence, “56 percent of Americans believed wrongly that the rate of gun crime was higher than it was 20 years ago.” In fact homicide rates have held steady or declined for most Americans over the last decade, Beckett writes. And it had nothing to do with the so-called “assault weapons” ban.

Meanwhile, the gun violence death toll in the black community has risen or stayed at levels of 20 years ago, despite falling crime statistics.

She quotes Mayor Mitchell J. Landrieu of New Orleans, who said: “We spent a whole bunch of time and a whole bunch of political capital yelling and screaming about assault weapons,” which he called a “zero sum political fight about a symbolic weapon.”

Landrieu and Mayor Michael A. Nutter of Philadelphia founded Cities United, a network of mayors trying to prevent the deaths of young black men.

“This is not just a gun issue, this is an unemployment issue, it’s a poverty issue, it’s a family issue, it’s a culture of violence issue,” Landrieu said.

The answer, suggests Beckett, are efforts to target high-risk individuals and behavior.

She quotes David M. Kennedy, the director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice,” who says only a small number of men drive most of the violence. Identify them and change their behavior, and it’s possible to have an immediate impact.

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