At midnight tonight, the Federal Assault Weapons Ban will expire. The 10-year ban was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994 after a series of violent shootings shocked the country.
As gun manufacturers get ready to sell these weapons of mass murder on the streets, police chiefs across the country are warning of an increase in crime. The semi-automatic weapons that are outlawed by the ban give an assailant the power to shoot multiple victims in a matter of seconds, crippling any efforts of law enforcement.
And in a country forever living in the wake of Sept. 11, constantly aware of the threat of terrorism on our own soil, we must note that intelligence reports have already indicated that terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, are instructing their operatives to obtain these soon-to-be-legal semi-automatic weapons for future use.
Whether or not Congress should renew the Assault Weapons Ban is not a question of gun control or of gun rights. The legislation has nothing to do with hunting guns or handguns kept by some citizens for self-protection. On the contrary, the original ban only outlawed ammunition clips of 10 rounds or more and 19 specific semi-automatic weapons, including AK-47s and Uzis.
Americans recognize that a ban on semi-automatic weapons is a non-political issue that both gun control activists and gun enthusiasts can agree on. Consistently, public opinion polls show that a vast majority of the public — some recent polls say as many as three out of every four Americans — is in favor of a federal ban on assault weapons. The original legislation had strong bipartisan support in 1994 and was publicly supported by former presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. And even George W. Bush has said that he would sign a renewal of the assault weapons ban if Congress brought it to his desk.
Despite this overwhelming support, Bush knows that this is a promise he will never have to keep; the Republican leadership in the House has stalled the renewal bill, House Resolution 3831, in the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security. The gun lobby, led by the powerful National Rifle Association, has already declared victory, sure of the fact that the bill will remain in committee while the current ban dies an all-too-quiet death.
This disconnect between public opinion and legislative reality might seem shocking to some. After all, if there really is true public support of such a ban, legislators should not think twice before renewing the ban.
But while advocates of the ban may represent a majority of Americans, they all too often allow themselves to become a silent majority. In an era of high-paid lobbyists and well-financed, single-issue groups like the NRA, a silent majority is easily overshadowed by a vocal minority, no matter how unrepresentative that minority is of the views of ordinary Americans.
On a day like today, it might seem as if we ordinary Americans have been disenfranchised — left behind by our representatives in Congress in favor of lucrative campaign donations and special interests. Maybe we have been, but it seems that part of the fault is our own. In a democratic republic, citizens have both a right and a responsibility to communicate with their leaders and lobby them on the issues that they care about. If we are silent, it is only natural that our representatives will listen to those who are speaking.
As the clock ticks and the expiration of the ban draws near, take a moment, show that we are not all silent, and contact your representative. Go to www.bradycampaign.org and look up if your representative is a co-sponsor of the renewal bill. If he is, take a moment to e-mail him and thank him for his support, and if he isn’t, e-mail him or call his office, and tell your representative why you would like him to support HR 3831.
Even if everyone who reads this column contacts his congressman, odds are that when the clock strikes midnight, the assault weapons ban will still expire. But if citizens begin to open a true dialogue with their representatives, we can make sure that when Americans go head-to-head with the special interests in the future — whether it’s about assault weapons, health care or the environment — the people win every time.
Alissa Stollwerk is a junior in Saybrook College.