This latest ad from Moveon PAC is about as misleading as it can be. Through words, graphics and sound effects, it invites viewers to think that the expiration of the ban on 19 semiautomatic assault weapons will allow people legally to buy fully automatic machine guns that can fire "up to 300 rounds per minute." That's false.
It has been illegal to buy a machine gun without federal clearance since 1934, and remains so.
The ad also claims that Bush "will let the assault weapon ban expire," which is misleading. In fact, Bush spoke in support of the ban during his campaign four years ago and his spokesman said as recently as May of last year that he still supported it. It was Congress that failed to consider extending the ban and didn't present Bush with a bill to sign.
This ad shows an AK47 assault rifle on screen. The announcer says "it can fire up to 300 rounds per minute" and "in the hands of terrorists, it could kill hundreds." A rapid burst of machine-gun fire is heard. The announcer says Kerry "would keep them illegal" while Bush "will let the assault weapon ban expire."
Announcer: This is an assault weapon. It can fire up to 300 rounds a minute. It’s the weapon most feared by our police. In the hands of terrorists it could kill hundreds. That’s why they’re illegal. John Kerry, a sportsman and a hunter, would keep them illegal.
But on Sept. 13th, George Bush will let the assault weapon ban expire. George Bush says he’s making America safer. Who does he think he’s kidding?
MoveonPAC is responsible for the content of this advertisement.
Each of those statements is literally true, standing alone. But taken together they suggest Bush is legalizing machine guns, and constitute false political advertising.
Machine Guns Still Illegal
Contrary to what the ad clearly implies, any weapon that can fire 300 rounds per minute remains illegal for civilians to own without specific clearance by the US Department of Justice.
In fact, machine guns have been tightly regulated since the passage of the National Firearms Act in 1934, in the wake of the gangster era. Legal ownership of a machine gun requires an extensive federal background check, fingerprinting, signed clearance from the chief of local law enforcement (such as a county sheriff), a $200 excise tax, and weeks of paperwork. That was true before the assault-weapon ban was enacted in 1994, and it remains true with the expiration of the ban at midnight Sept. 13, 2004.
That's made clear in a question-and-answer document posted Sept. 13 on the Web site of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), explaining the effect of the expiration of the assault-weapon ban:
ATF: All provisions of the National Firearms Act (NFA) relating to registration and transfer of machineguns . . . still apply.
The fully automatic version of the AK47 -- pictured and described in the ad -- remains just as illegal as it was before the ban expired.
In fact, the assault-weapon ban only applied to 19 specific semiautomatic firearms (which require a separate trigger pull for each shot) as well as semiautomatic rifles that incorporate at least two military-style features from a list that included folding stocks, bayonet mounts, or flash suppressors. The full definition of previously banned weapons is contained in Title 27 of the Code of Federal Regulations, here.
The impression created by the ad is correct only in one respect -- the appearance of the weapon shown. It is pictured with a large-capacity magazine, which could hold perhaps 30 rounds of ammunition. Before the ban expired, only magazines holding 10 rounds were allowed. It is true that someone using a newly legal, high-capacity clip could fire more shots without reloading than before the ban. But they still couldn't fire 300 rounds per minute, or anything close to that.
(NOTE, Sept. 27: Some of our readers have made us aware that large capacity magazines holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition could be obtained legally even during the ban. According to ATF "the ban made it unlawful to transfer or possess" large capacity magazines, but only those "manufactured after Sept. 13, 1994." So any large capacity magazines manufactured on or before Sept. 13, 1994 could be legally obtained during the ban.)
The ad says "John Kerry, a sportsman and a hunter, would keep them (assault weapons) illegal." But Bush also expressed support. He said during the 2000 campaign that he supported the assault-weapon ban. And in May, 2003 the White House Press Secretary at the time, Ari Fleischer, said Bush still considered extending the ban to be "a reasonable step."
Q Let me ask you something about the assault weapons ban. I realize the President was for the reauthorization back in 2000. Why does he support that?
Fleischer (May 8, 2003): Well, the President thought, and said so at the time in 2000, that the assault weapon ban was a reasonable step. The assault weapon ban was crafted with the thought that it would deter crime. There are still studies underway of its crime deterring abilities, but the President thought that was reasonable, and that's why he supported it. And that's why he supports the reauthorization of the current ban. . . . Often the President will agree, of course, with the National Rifle Association. On this issue he does not. . . . In this instance, you know what he said, as you pointed out, in 2000. He continues to believe it today.
Kerry is currently faulting Bush for not pushing Congress to extend the ban. So are gun-control advocates such as Sarah Brady, wife of former President Reagan's press secretary, Jim Brady. She said on CBS's "The Early Show" that letting the ban lapse was "purely political."
Sarah Brady: The real onus fell on President George W. Bush. . . . He has exerted absolutely no leadership. We have a president and leadership in the House and Senate that simply do not want to face this.
That's an opinion, of course. And indeed, we could find no instance of Bush himself even mentioning the assault weapons ban in his official appearances as President. Furthermore, when pressed repeatedly by a reporter Sept. 13, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan would not cite the name of a single member of Congress that Bush had called to ask that the ban be extended.
Q Isn't it kind of disingenuous for the President to say that I'm for the assault weapons ban, but then not spend a nickel of his political capital to fight for it?
McClellan: I disagree. His position has always been well-known, and it's been clear going back to his first campaign for President.
Q That he was for the ban?
McClellan: For a reauthorization of the current ban.
Q . . . so if he's for the ban, and he doesn't do a thing --
McClellan: Well, keep in mind that the Congress is the one that sets the legislative timetable, and Congress has made clear that it's not going to be coming up. . .
Q He was happy to let the authorization lapse, wasn't he?
McClellan: Oh, you know that's a ridiculous assertion.
Q Name one thing, one step that the President took to have the assault weapons ban reauthorized?
McClellan: That's why I said, Ron, his position has been very well-known. We've restated that position. It remains unchanged. But he does not set the legislative timetable. Members of Congress set the legislative timetable. And Congress has stated -- congressional leaders have stated that it's not going to come up for a vote.
Q Is there one congressman, one congressional leader who he has called in Congress, and said, please put it on the timetable? . . .
McClellan: Let's debate the real issue here . . .
Q Name one person who he called to lobby on behalf of legislation.
McClellan: -- his position has been made well-known.
Q So there's nothing more he could have done to get the ban extended?
McClellan: Well, I think members of Congress have stated -- congressional leaders have stated that it's not going to be coming up for a vote. . . .
Q Can you name one person who he's called on the Hill on behalf of this legislation?
McClellan: Look, members of Congress know his position very well, Ron.
Q So has he made a call to any of them?
McClellan: His position is very well-known, Ron, and members have known his position. And it's been discussed with members, too.
But it is also a fact that Bush was publicly committed to sign an extension if Congress passed it, and it was Congress that failed to do so.
U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, "Semiautomatic Assault Weapon (SAW) Ban, QUESTIONS & ANSWERS," 13 Sep 2004.
US Code of Federal Regulations, Title 27, Volume 2: 27CFR478.11.
US Code of Federal Regulations, Title 27, Volume 2: PART 479--MACHINE GUNS, DESTRUCTIVE DEVICES, AND CERTAIN OTHER FIREARMS.
U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, "ATF F 5320.4 (Form 4) - Application for Tax Paid Transfer and Registration of a Firearm."
The White House, "Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer," 8 May 2004.
Mary Dalrymple, "Kerry blasts lapse of assault weapons ban, promotes crime-fighting program," The Associated Press 13 Sep 2004.
The White House, "Press Gaggle with Scott McClellan Aboard Air Force One," 13 Sep 2004.