From a 1988 Violence Policy Center paper (emphasis added):
[A]ssault weapons are quickly becoming the leading topic of America’s gun control debate and will most likely remain the leading gun control issue for the near future. Such a shift will not only damage America’s gun lobby, but strengthen the handgun restriction lobby for the following reasons:
* It will be a new topic in what has become to the press and public an “old” debate.
Although handguns claim more than 20,000 lives a year, the issue of handgun restriction consistently remains a non-issue with the vast majority of legislators, the press, and public. The reasons for this vary: the power of the gun lobby; the tendency of both sides of the issue to resort to sloganeering and pre-packaged arguments when discussing the issue; the fact that until an individual is affected by handgun violence he or she is unlikely to work for handgun restrictions; the view that handgun violence is an “unsolvable” problem; the inability of the handgun restriction movement to organize itself into an effective electoral threat; and the fact that until someone famous is shot, or something truly horrible happens, handgun restriction is simply not viewed as a priority. Assault weapons — just like armor-piercing bullets, machine guns, and plastic firearms — are a new topic. The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons — anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun — can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons. In addition, few people can envision a practical use for these weapons….
From Charles Krauthammer — a conservative, but one who is distinctly anti-gun — writing in the Washington Post in 1996:
The claim of the advocates that banning these 19 types of “assault weapons” will reduce the crime rate is laughable…. Dozens of other weapons, the functional equivalent of these “assault weapons,” were left off the list and are perfect substitutes for anyone bent on mayhem….
In fact, the assault weapons ban will have no significant effect either on the crime rate or on personal security. Nonetheless, it is a good idea, though for reasons its proponents dare not enunciate. I am not up for reelection. So let me elaborate the real logic of the ban:
It is simply crazy for a country as modern, industrial, advanced and now crowded as the United States to carry on its frontier infatuation with guns. Yes, we are a young country, but the frontier has been closed for 100 years. In 1992, there were 13,220 handgun murders in the United States. Canada (an equally young country, one might note) had 128; Britain, 33.
Ultimately, a civilized society must disarm its citizenry if it is to have a modicum of domestic tranquillity of the kind enjoyed in sister democracies like Canada and Britain. Given the frontier history and individualist ideology of the United States, however, this will not come easily. It certainly cannot be done radically. It will probably take one, maybe two generations. It might be 50 years before the United States gets to where Britain is today.
Passing a law like the assault weapons ban is a symbolic — purely symbolic — move in that direction. Its only real justification is not to reduce crime but to desensitize the public to the regulation of weapons in preparation for their ultimate confiscation. Its purpose is to spark debate, highlight the issue, make the case that the arms race between criminals and citizens is as dangerous as it is pointless.
De-escalation begins with a change in mentality. And that change in mentality starts with the symbolic yielding of certain types of weapons. The real steps, like the banning of handguns, will never occur unless this one is taken first, and even then not for decades….