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November 1995
Volume 13, Number 11

Backfire on Gun Control
Dale Steinreich

Since October 1993, we have lived through the biggest buying spree of firearms in the history of the U.S. It began just before the passage of the Brady Bill and has yet to die down. And the boom in sales will continue so long as members of the governing elites are infatuated with the prospect of gun bans.

Last summer, demand for guns and ammunition soared to such astronomic levels that even militant gun advocate Jim Shults, executive editor of Modern Gun magazine, became alarmed. Gun companies were up to their ears in back orders. They ranged from a small specialty producer filling orders for 16,000 guns to a large maker for 178,000. Two mid-size companies were back ordered for 45,000 and 56,000 weapons each.

Ammunition and components were back ordered for an astounding nine months. At last summer's annual S.H.O.T. show in Dallas, a foreign maker's inventory of five million bullets was quickly cleaned out and replaced by back orders for 97 million more.

This spree, which was just the beginning, was prompted by government intervention. Regulations on the market and impending bans of certain guns caused a deluge of weapons buying. Many citizens felt that these laws were harbingers of a complete ban and confiscation of all private firearms, and they were reacting defensively to the legislation.

Shults called some Members of Congress to explain this, and was hopeful that, once they understood it, politicians would stop considering more gun bans. Surely no reasonable person could believe that such legislation had anything to do with slowing the amount of gun buying. They were causing the opposite to happen.

But the governing elites, who are anything but reasonable, then passed the "assault weapons" ban anyway. The rationale was to stop the rash of homicides, but the affected weapons were involved in only 0.5% of all homicides. Thus the ban made us no safer than before.

In the real world of gun markets, the response was explosive. As demand surged, Colt AR-15s jumped from $995 to $1,600 in price, while AK-47s jumped from $200 to $600. The prices of TEC-9s, M1-As, Uzis, Mac 10s, and FALs reacted similarly in the midst of panic buying by the public.

I went to Birmingham, Alabama, one of the largest wholesale and retail centers of the U.S. gun industry. "Bill Clinton has to be the best thing that has ever happened to the gun industry," a salesman at one store told me. Standing in front of a wall full of AK-47s he said, "Our sales jumped 50% after the Brady Bill and about 80% after the Crime Bill."

After a summer of brawling with Congress to remove these "weapons of terror from our streets," Bill Clinton vacationed for a week before signing the "urgent" bill on Sep. 13, 1994. But every day he was in Martha's Vineyard, USA Magazines, Inc., worked overtime manufacturing one million of the soon-to-be-banned, high-capacity magazines per day. Other manufacturers behaved similarly, making sure that supply met demand.

Since last December, prices have steadily fallen. Prompted by the initial surge in prices, people who had owned weapons before the "ban" suddenly found it worthwhile to sell their weapons for sometimes more than triple what was originally paid for them. The prospect of large profits was enough to overcome the strong sentimental value of a weapon to many gun owners.

In addition, the guns that were banned began to appear in new, unbanned forms. The government defines an assault rifle as a weapon with two of these characteristics: flash suppressor, folding stock, protruding pistol grip, bayonet lug, or grenade launcher. Gun companies removed one or two of these features and their "assault weapons" were magically legal again. The banned Colt AR-15, with its flash suppressor and bayonet lug removed, was reintroduced (and is now legally sold) as the Colt Sporter Match Competition HBAR.

Colt had lots of work to do compared with Springfield Armory. Springfield's M1-A doesn't have a pistol grip, so all the company had to do was remove the bayonet lug. No need to worry about a more politically correct name: the M1-A is once again available, but without the bayonet attachment. The streets are now safe from drive-by bayonettings.

At what point will liberals realize that their anti-gun campaign is having the opposite effect of what they intend? Let's consider other examples.

The Treasury Department raised the fee for becoming a gun dealer. The hope was to make guns less accessible, while the effect was the opposite. Many small dealers selling small weapons have not renewed. Consumers now go to larger retailers, where they discover and buy a greater variety of more interesting and powerful guns. Alarmed by the disappearance of dealers and the variety of available weaponry, self protectors become full-fledged collectors.

If politics is about rewarding friends, the militia movement must be pulling the strings in Washington. The movement went from nothing in 1993 to a burgeoning industry of organized groups that actively train in military maneuvers and produce and sell newsletters and videotapes. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), a gun controller, has seen the California militia movement go from zero to 34 chapters in the last year and a half.

The government's campaign has caused gun shows to come alive. Most people go to get guns, but others find they offer enormous opportunities for political organizing. Average Joes, who were only involved on the political periphery, join movements that drive liberals bananas.

Never has the principle of the unintended effect been more operative. So what are the liberals doing about it? During the Ruby Ridge hearings, Feinstein, with all the contempt she could muster, denounced America as "a gun-happy society." Indignant that anyone would even think of questioning the actions of her sniper friends in the FBI, she said "I will continue to fight until my dying breath to control weapons in this country."

While Democrats have ignored the effects of the anti-gun crusade, the Stupid Party has done little better. After Colin Powell, the self-styled LBJ Democrat, announced that he was in favor of wealth redistribution, affirmative action, and gun control, Republicans opened their arms to him.

"We'd welcome him if he ran as a Republican," said House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Republican mascot William Kristol was even more enthusiastic. After hearing Powell's views, he said, "These are all respectable positions."

Jim Shults reports that gun sales are not as high as they were last year, but they remain very brisk. Although they could slow down even more at the beginning of next year, they could easily rocket back to or exceed 1994 levels if Washington politicians insist on raising the specter of another nationwide disarmament.

A free people are "gun happy" to the same degree that government and its employees are "power hungry." If this were a perfect world of no crime, public or private, there would be no reason to buy the guns that upset liberals so much. But so long as power tends to corrupt, and the government threatens to abolish the right of self protection, Americans will continue to see stockpiling as a necessary corrective.

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Dale Steinreich is a graduate student in Economics at Auburn University

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