He’s back! Just as I knew he would be. Representative Joseph Hoeffel (D-PA) has accelerated his crusade against antique gun collectors, black powder shooters, historical reenactors and living history participants. Last year Hoeffel seized upon a tragic shooting at a Norristown, PA, hospital, in which the perpetrator used a reproduction cap and ball revolver, to demand the extension of restrictive laws governing assault rifles and semiautomatic handguns to original and reproduction antique arms back to the matchlock era. Even more ominously, his proposal forever links the legislative fate of our favorite firearms to that of modern guns. As chronicled in this column over the ensuing months, Mr. Hoeffel has been lumping muskets with Uzis ever since.
In late January, 2000, Hoeffel, who calls a news conference at the drop of a hat, popped up before the press with a "study" prepared by his staff and allegedly based upon research and statistics provided by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (BATF). The congressman claims that his study, which he says was conducted over a seven-month period, reveals that antique and reproduction black powder firearms were used in 775 crimes across the country over the last three years, and that 15 of these crimes were homicides. Hoeffel is reported as stating that "Clearly, these weapons are used far more frequently then anybody thought…they're capable of killing people. And my view is any working antique and working replica of an antique capable of shooting and being used in a crime should be considered a modern weapon." To date, Hoeffel has not shared an actual copy of his staff’s "study’ with the media.
Representative Steny Hoyer (D. MD), who appeared alongside Hoeffel at the press conference, voiced support for his legislation. Hoyer is quoted as saying that Hoeffel’s proposed law "addresses a critical problem and makes safer Norristown, the communities around Philadelphia and the nation." Boy am I glad these guys are looking out for my welfare. Now I can sleep soundly at night.
Since the mainstream press appears to have no interest in pointing out the inconsistencies of Hoeffel’s claims, I’ll raise them here. First, his tale of a "seven month" study is inaccurate. He did not get involved in proposing restrictive and punitive legislation on collectors, black powder shooters and historical reenactors until July 23, 1999. It was on that date that he appeared on the steps of the Norristown courthouse with fellow Democrat Richard Gephardt for an antique gun-bashing media event. It was at least another month before his request for a BATF "study" was approved, and his most recent news conference announcing the results of his own "study" was held on January 25, 2000.
Next, Hoeffel admits that BATF records reveal that only .013% of its crime-use firearms trace requests involve antique or reproduction firearms, yet he maintains that the criminal usage of such arms "was actually higher." How, one might ask, can he know that, given the fact that his staff allegedly used BATF data to prepare the report?
It also seems unlikely that the claim that of 775 crimes and 15 murders "in the last three years" by persons using antique or reproduction firearms is statistically supported. Annual crime statistics always lag several years behind their publication, and therefore are simply not available for "the last three years." The BATF, where the information allegedly originated, does not keep such statistics on antique and reproduction guns anyway.
Let us, however, give the devil his due and assume that there were 15 murders involving firearms other than modern conventional ones in the last three years. Exactly what kind of arm was involved in each incident? Reproduction? Original? Capping breechloader? Muzzle loader? Metallic cartridge? Did any of the guns in question fall under the BATF’s "relic and curio" classification, which includes 9mm German Lugers and other World War I and II trophies, and not true pre-1898 antiques? The congressman is silent.
If the arms used in these crimes turn out to be Lugers or even 1890s era .32 caliber "suicide special" revolvers found in great-grandpa’s drawer by some lowlife, then I fail to see what kind of argument this makes in favor of restricting the sale of original Civil War rifle muskets. In fact, an individual claiming to have been a BATF employee during the period the agency complied with Hoeffel’s research request has reported that the BATF went back 50 years searching for murders committed by people using reproduction Civil War and earlier era firearms. According to this person, who, unfortunately, has not disclosed his name, the agency uncovered reports of some accidental deaths involving reproduction guns, but could only find one murder – last year’s in Norristown.
On a final note, I would also like to see statistics on the number of people murdered with kitchen carving knives over the last three years. I am sure it dramatically exceeds 15. Would 15 murders with these weapons over a three year period drive the congressman to proclaim, as he has in this case, "15 murders is enough for me!" I doubt it. As much as I doubt we’ll ever see an actual copy of Mr. Hoeffel’s "report," which he waves before the public much like another publicity seeking legislator, that one a Senator, waved a "list of names" some 50 years ago.