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Loaded

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."

But Democrats and the president made a crucial compromise with Republicans beholden to the National Rifle Association's powerful lobbying arm, one that rendered the ban close to impotent: All guns produced before the ban took effect would be grandfathered in. Arms produced prior to September 13, 1994, would be legal to sell and own. Gunmakers took advantage of the grace period. "While the ban was being debated, manufacturers pumped up production," the Brady Center's Haile says. Intratec, for instance, reportedly tripled production to 102,682 assault pistols while waiting for the ban, and had its most profitable year ever.

Manufacturers also took advantage of the bill's specifics to redesign guns without the offending features. For example, Intratec got rid of the Tec-9's threaded barrel and perforated barrel shroud and released the new and improved AB-10. The initials stood for "After Ban." Same semi-automatic 9mm gun, new look. "Like any businessman, you figure out what it takes to survive," says Mike Solodovnik, Intratec's former marketing and sales manager.

A June study conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and funded by the Department of Justice tried to look at the ban's effects and couldn't clearly see any ten years later because of the number of guns and magazines that had flooded the market. "The ban's exemption of millions of pre-ban AWs [assault weapons] and LCMs [large-capacity magazines] ensured that the effects of the law would occur only gradually," the study states. "Those effects are still unfolding and may not be fully felt for several years into the future."

The researchers also noted that large-capacity magazines were more relevant to a gun's potential for mayhem than any cosmetic changes, because of a shooter's ability to spray bullets and repeat fire quickly. Eliminating the big magazines might help gun victims. But again, according to researchers: "Because the ban has not yet reduced the use of [large-capacity magazines] in crimes, we cannot clearly credit the ban with the nation's recent drop in gun violence."

So the ban was largely "feel-good legislation," as House majority leader Tom DeLay put it. Now Congress is free to craft a new, more effective ban. But where do our representatives in Washington stand? One thing's clear -- politicians on the stump in Florida still fear being labeled anti-gun in the state's rural counties.

Florida Democrats not running for office are enthusiastic about reinstating a stronger ban. "Yes and yes," says Bryan Gulley, Sen. Bill Nelson's spokesman, when asked if Nelson would support a new, tougher law that would close the loopholes. Meek, up for reelection against a write-in opponent, also supports as strong a ban as possible. He says several bills are being prepared.

But a spokesman for Democrat Betty Castor, who is running for U.S. Senate against conservative Mel Martinez, gave a more qualified answer. "Betty supports the constitutional right to own a gun," says spokesman Matt Burgess. "She agrees with President Bush that laws on the books need to be enforced to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. And she believes the assault-weapons ban should be reinstated as is." Then Burgess adds, "You know, her husband owns several guns."

That should keep them happy up in the Panhandle.

(Martinez's press office declined to return a call asking for a statement.)

Interestingly Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen supports an extension of the ban. "You will be happy to know that I am a co-sponsor of this important legislation, which would extend the sunset on the Assault Weapons Ban for ten years," she said in a prepared statement released prior to the law's expiration.

House leadership never allowed the issue to come to the floor -- no debate, no vote. On the Senate side, efforts to extend the ban were doomed from the start. The ban-extension legislation was a "poison pill" amendment attached to a bill giving gun manufacturers immunity from civil lawsuits. In order to kill the immunity bill, Democrats attached the ban's renewal.  

That provides an interesting insight. When it comes to fighting assault-weapon proliferation, lawsuits are infinitely more terrifying to gunmakers than the ban ever was. A few years ago about two dozen municipalities, including Miami-Dade County, attempted to sue gun companies to recover medical costs of gunshot victims, claiming the weapons were defective for not having sufficient safety features. The lawsuits were modeled after similar ones against tobacco companies.

Those suits followed several private cases in which victims of high-profile mass killings sued manufacturers. The families of victims of a 1993 San Francisco law-office massacre, in which the perpetrator used two Tec-9s to kill eight people and wound six; and the families of some of the fifteen Columbine High School students killed in 1999 by two students wielding, among other weapons, Tec-DC9s (a newer model), had both sued Intratec, by then known as Navegar. The lawsuits were ultimately unsuccessful.

In 2001 Navegar quietly closed shop and voluntarily went out of business, though by then its owner, Cuban-born Coral Gables resident Carlos Garcia, had amassed a fortune.

Lesson learned: If Officer Hubert, who is recovering from her wounds, hopes to prevent the big guns from hitting the streets and taking down her colleagues, she should consider suing the gunmaker -- if police can ever find the weapon that nearly killed her.


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