NRA Weasel Watch, Day 7.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
May 29 2003 6:12 PM

NRA Weasel Watch, Day 7

Does it favor the weapons ban in Iraq?

On May 21, the front page of the New York Times announced that the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq would no longer permit Iraqi civilians to own "automatic weapons and heavy weapons." Starting June 15, it will be illegal in Iraq to own privately any of the following:

automatic firearms firing ammunition larger than 7.62mm; machine guns or crew-served weapons; anti-tank weapons; anti-aircraft weapons; indirect fire weapons; all armored vehicles or self-propelled weapons; and high explosives and explosive devices.

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This ban is more permissive than the federal gun-control laws in the United States. In Iraq, it appears one may still own an AK-47, whereas in the United States ownership of an AK-47, or one of several other kinds of semiautomatic weapons, is against the law under the 1994 assault weapons ban. [Correction, May 30: The assault weapons ban does not outlaw ownership of AK-47s; it outlaws the manufacture of the guns.] The National Rifle Association is currently urging Congress to let this ban lapse when it expires next year. Chatterbox wouldn't be surprised to see the NRA argue that if our government will let an Islamist fanatic own an AK-47 in wild and woolly Iraq, it should give that same right to Americans. Gun-control groups might counter this by noting that our federal gun laws at home go largely unenforced.

But all this begs the more interesting question: Does the NRA favor the Coalition Provisional Authority's ban on ownership of large automatic firearms, machine guns, etc., in Iraq? A ban that, to Chatterbox's mind, doesn't really go far enough? (Thinking that AK-47s would be included in the ban—as perhaps they were in an early draft of the proclamation—the Times pointed out that they are frequently used by "criminal gangs, paramilitary groups, and remnants of the Saddam Hussein government.")

It's fun to imagine how the NRA would sweat its way through this question. If it supported the Iraq ban, it would win points for supporting our troops overseas but lose a lot more by creating an impression that it had gone soft. If the NRA opposed the Iraq ban, it would be give greater weight to the rights of gun owners than to the lives of American soldiers, not to mention all Iraqis who aspire to a form of government more exalted than mere anarchy. Bonus political science question: Can the NRA explain how Iraq became a dictatorship in the first place when its citizenry was armed to the teeth?

Chatterbox has been phoning the NRA press office for a week, seeking comment on the weapons ban in Iraq. Every time he calls, a cheerful NRA employee promises a response. Every time, Chatterbox never gets one. Starting today, Chatterbox inaugurates the NRA Weasel Watch, which will document the NRA's ongoing efforts to duck Chatterbox's simple question. Today is Day 7.

Correction, May 30: The 1994 assault weapon ban outlawed manufacture—but not sale or ownership—of AK-47 semiautomatics. (The Treasury Department had already banned importation of AK-47 semiautomatics in 1989. It expanded that ban to include knock-offs in 1998.) Ownership of all automatic weapons, including AK-47 automatics, has been severely restricted (but not completely banned) since 1934, and since 1986 it's been illegal for hobbyists to own any newly manufactured automatic weapon. Chatterbox was therefore incorrect when he wrote, "ownership of an AK-47 … is against the law under the 1994 assault weapon ban." You can still buy a used AK-47 semiautomatic and even a used AK-47 automatic (though to do the latter, anyone lacking a military or law-enforcement function must jump through many regulatory hoops).

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.