Loaded

The federal ban on assault weapons never worked, as Miami-Dade Police Ofcr. Keenya Hubert painfully learned

It's safe to say that as John Kerry and George Bush lay their heads down upon their pillows late Saturday night two weeks ago, they had never heard of Miami-Dade Police Ofcr. Keenya Hubert. And no doubt, as the 26-year-old Hubert arrived at the Intracoastal substation to begin her 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. shift that night, she had no reason to believe they ever would.

Following roll call, Hubert, who has been on the force three years, sidled into her green-and-white patrol car and eased into the night. Around 2:30 a.m., while patrolling along NE 191st Street near Third Avenue, she heard the telltale pop-pop sound that every police officer is trained to recognize right away as gunfire. She sped in the direction of the noise -- the Star Lakes condominium complex. As she arrived, a white Chevrolet Impala bolted in front of her. Hubert trailed the Impala until it turned right on North Miami Avenue. Then she radioed in the tag, flipped on her lights, and pulled the car over on NE 184th Street.

Before Hubert even opened her car door, much less uttered "license and registration please," the Impala's driver had already emerged, clutching what police believe was an AK-47 assault rifle. He pointed it at her, pulled the trigger, and sprayed bullets in her direction. At least two dozen 7.62mm rounds shattered the world around Hubert, who was able to crawl from her cruiser and duck for cover behind a building. Bullets flew. One of them struck her in the arm while another grazed her forehead. One or more pierced the car's engine area, setting it aflame. Outgunned and bleeding, Hubert radioed that she had been hit.

And with that Officer Hubert burst onto the national stage of election-year politics.

Even as Hubert's car smoldered, a national ban on certain assault weapons and the large-capacity magazines that feed them bullets was ticking toward expiration at midnight the next day, Monday, September 13, after being the law for ten years. Leaders of the Republican-controlled Congress had refused to schedule a vote to extend the ban another ten years, and were simply letting the clock run out. The attack on Hubert illustrated precisely why the ban had been created in the first place. That it happened the day before the expiration was a bloody coincidence.

The next day in Washington, D.C., Florida's Sen. Bill Nelson admonished his colleagues. "Why is it that law enforcement, at every level of government -- federal, state, and local -- is against terminating this law that prohibited the sale of assault rifles? Why is law enforcement opposed to the termination of this law? For exactly this reason: A Miami-Dade County police officer was shot two dozen times by an AK-47. I rest my case, and I think it is a sad day that we could not reenact an extension of the law on the abolition of assault weapons, primarily for the sake of law enforcement."

From his Capitol office, Miami's Democratic Congressman Kendrick Meek issued a statement recounting Hubert's attack and noting that it took place not far from his home. "It is an appalling lack of leadership that allows assault weapons to be easily purchased in our country," he fumed.

Meanwhile the Kerry campaign quickly released a statement from former U.S. Attorney General and Miami-Dade resident Janet Reno. "Yesterday a Miami police officer was shot by a criminal brandishing an AK-47," Reno said. "That officer experienced firsthand why the ban on military-style assault weapons needs to be renewed. Allowing criminals and terrorists to easily obtain AK-47s puts law-enforcement officials and the communities they serve at risk."

Republicans, including South Florida Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and brother Mario Diaz-Balart, were noticeably silent.

Yet all the angry pronouncements ignore a core truth about the ban: It didn't work. Because of political compromises that led to loopholes in the law, thousands upon thousands of assault weapons could be legally bought and sold while the ban was in place. Certainly it hadn't kept Hubert's attacker from acquiring one. (A suspect is in custody but at press time the gun had not been located.) And now, as Democrats prepare to propose legislation for a new assault-weapons ban, they will have the chance to fashion a stronger bill that will, of course, have a harder time getting passed.


It is fitting that the ban on assault weapons ended amid news from Miami. After all, it was a gun from Miami that inspired the ban in the first place. The infamous Tec-9 assault pistol, which became the smoking totem of Eighties cocaine cowboys and Nineties gang violence, was designed and produced in a factory on SW 130th Street by Intratec, later called Navegar, whose in-your-face marketing techniques bragging about fingerprint-resistant grips infuriated gun-control advocates. "They were the poster children for marketing guns to criminals," says Elizabeth Haile, staff attorney for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

The Tec-9 was one of nineteen guns banned by name as part of President Bill Clinton's 1994 crime bill. In addition to specific models, the bill also made guns illegal if they contained two or more military-style features from a list that included bayonet attachments, folding barrel stocks, threaded barrels to accommodate silencers, and perforated barrel shrouds that cooled the gun during rapid firing. Magazines that carried more than ten rounds also were banned. The bill was widely supported by police organizations. "This was such a big issue for us," recalls Bill Berger, North Miami Beach police chief and former president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "Not even hunters could look me in the face and tell me these kinds of weapons were for hunting."

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