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Assault Weapons

by Hugh Downs

"Years ago, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy distinguished himself from his opponent Richard M. Nixon by saying that he, Kennedy, knew who he was and that Nixon did not know who he was.

"Firearms, in whatever numbers or whatever configurations, are not the problem. The problem would seem to have its roots in national attitudes we have toward correcting things. Where did we develop the idea that personal grievances or social wrongs can be redressed by shooting the bad guy?

"For example, we do not have the greatest number of handguns per capita. We just have greatest number of deaths from these weapons. Israel and Switzerland are both ahead of us in number of handguns per capita. But they don't have very much of this kind of crime. Almost every home in those countries has at least one sidearm, given a person on completion of compulsory military service. They have the guns, but they just don't seem inclined to shoot each other.

"The assault rifle debate takes our attention away from the underlying problem: how to effect a change in our national attitude toward settling differences by violence. This is what we should be focused on. But we seem to be fixated on a buzzword like 'assault'.

"Hunters, professional armorers, and firearm historians say the term is imprecise. Some claim there is no such thing. One common term, known as an assault rifle, refers to a long arm or carbine capable of automatic fire with ordinary military ammunition or big-game ammunition.

"Legislators who initiated the ban claim that semi-automatic weapons have no sporting use. But semi-automatic rifles have long history in hunting and other sports. The famous BAR, or Browning Automatic Rifle, is a semiautomatic hunting rifle; so is the Remington Model 7400. Semiautomatic shotguns have been on the market for many years.

"The banned rifles differ from non-banned ones only in small decorative details: decorations like a folding stock, a bayonet mount, or a flash suppressor. Otherwise, the banned 'assault weapons' are ordinary rifles. They are not automatic military weapons.

"Unlike Britons, Americans are citizens and not subjects. And there's a very great difference between the two. Americans do not worship their government as god, which is a thousand-year-old tradition in Japan. Nor, like the Japanese, do we believe that government is infallible, as if government authority were an extension of family authority.

"Americans are not Canadians either. We are unlike both the strict Quebecois and the English-speaking subjects of the British monarch. Americans are different and require different rules and laws.

"Maybe when we Americans learn to responsibly manage our guns, and our drugs, and our automobiles, or any other of the dangerous things in life, maybe then we will know who we are.

"For Perspective, this is Hugh Downs, ABC News."