Police Chiefs Are Right: Ban Assault Weapons

"We're talking about weapons that are made for war," said Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee. "An AK-47 is a Russian-made weapon that is made for war. An AR-15, which is an answer to the AK-47... these high-capacity [guns]... you can shoot 50 to 60 rounds within a minute. Within a minute you can literally shoot through brick, shoot through steel."

Speaking at a news conference with Rep. John Conyers and myself, Chief Godbee expressed dismay that there has been no action to revive the assault-weapons ban that was allowed to expire in 2004 when George W. Bush was president.

In the Aurora, CO, movie theater slaughter, the number of victims likely would have been much higher -- except suspect James Holmes' assault weapon apparently jammed, limiting his ability to spray the audience with deadly rounds of bullets.

An assault weapon is not useful for hunting game. It isn't easily available, like a handgun, for self-defense. It is designed for one purpose: war. These are weapons for domestic, homegrown terrorism. Aurora is close to Denver International Airport. A gunman at the end of a runway could shoot bullets through an airplane. Bullets were shot from the street into the back porch of the White House last year.

Leaders calling for a renewed ban are, not surprisingly, those most exposed to them on the streets: America's police chiefs. Many of them are NRA members, but they know assault weapons put the lives of their officers and citizens at risk.

According to Miami Police Chief John Timoney, assault weapons have become "the weapon of choice among gangs here... The guns keep coming in, their prices are dropping." In Miami, assault weapons were used in about 4 percent of all homicides in 2004 as the weapons ban expired. Now, Timoney says, the number is about 21 percent.

This month, Police Chief magazine reprinted a letter from Chief Joseph M. Polisar, then head of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, originally published in 2004 as the assault weapons ban expired. Polisar vowed that the chiefs would continue to push for the ban, noting it had proved "remarkably effective in reducing the number of crimes involving assault weapons. Since 1994 the proportion of assault weapons traced to crimes has fallen by a dramatic 66 percent."

But politicians are more intimidated by the gun manufacturers and the National Rifle Association than they are moved by the police chiefs or by common sense. The result is that gun ownership is less well-policed than driving. There is no required training to own or use a gun, even an assault weapon. And as Holmes showed, in Colorado and many states, you can build an arsenal overnight capable of bringing down an airplane or shooting up a baseball crowd without any meaningful checks or accountability.

Will the laws change now? Speaking on ABC News, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey was skeptical, and he was worried that outrage will "fade into the background" and nothing will be done: "We talk about this constantly, and absolutely nothing happens, because many of our legislators, unfortunately, at the federal level, lack the courage to do anything."

To change that, Americans must stand up and face down the gun lobby. Police chiefs -- Republicans, Democrats, NRA members -- will help show the way. The national debate is not about the Second Amendment, a gun for housekeeping or guns for hunting. We are talking about guns for terror that threaten national security and aid domestic and foreign terrorists.

Let's lift the conversation from gun control to guns out of control and ban assault weapons to protect national security and domestic tranquility.

Our national security should be a common note for all of us.

This piece was originally published by the Chicago Sun-Times.