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Municipal assault weapons bans lack teeth of expired federal ban, seen as symbols

Thursday night, Columbus city council's public safety committee will hold its final hearing on a proposed city ban of assault weapons. After the federal assault weapons ban expired in September, many cities and states are looking to ban the weapons.

However, when compared the federal ban, city bans are largely symbolic.

In September, the ten year federal ban on assault weapons expired when congress did not vote on whether to renew it. Soon after, Columbus City Councilman Mike Mentel, the chair of the public safety committee, began the process of developing an assault weapons ban for the city.

Mentel has held three hearings; this week's hearing will be the final session before city attorneys begin drafting an ordinance.

Mentel says an ordinance is not a foregone conclusion, but he leaves little doubt he favors one.

Anything we can do to prevent police officers from having to look down the barrel of one of these guns is worth of strong consideration, he says.

The arguments for and against the ban are typical. Ban opponents say the prohibitions violate the second amendment and are a first step toward the outright ban of guns. Supporters say restrictions on gun ownership are constitutional and the assault weapons serve no other purpose but to kill a lot of people as quickly as possible.

But even if the city of Columbus passes an assault weapons ban, it will have far fewer teeth than the federal ban had. Under the now expired federal ban, violation of the law could get you five years in prison.

Because the Columbus ban would be a city ordinanance, a violation is a misdemeanor. Which brings at most a six month jail sentence and a $1,000 fine.

Councilman Mentel admits it's not a severe penalty, but he says the ordinance would allow police to at least get the guns off the street, "It gives police another tool in their tool box to fight crime."

Maureen Martin of the conservative Chicago based policy group Heartland Institute says the bans don't help fight crime. She says they are just symbols. "The are feel good legislation," she says.

But Laura Cutilletta of the liberal group Legal Community Against Violence says the city bans - even with only misdemeanor status - can help build political pressure. She saysm,"A stronger penalty would be better but it's a good place to start. The more cities and counties that do this kind of thing will send a message to the state; the more states that do it will send a message to the federal government."

Dublin has an assault weapons ban - it predates the federal ban and Dublin city council last month renewed it.

But the Dublin ban has even less bite. It only bans the sale, transfer or manufacture of assault weapons - not possession. So someone could buy an assault weapon in Columbus, walk across sawmill road and legally possess it in Dublin. Dublin city manager Jane Brautigam admits her city's ban is to some extent, symbolic.

Brautigam says, "T he reason why we passed this is we wanted to make a statement that assault weapons should not be a part of our beautiful suburban community."

Dublin officials say banning possession would go too far and would criminalize people who already owned guns that fall into the assault weapons category.

Laura Cutilletta of the legal community against violence suspects politics did not allow Dublin to ban possession. She says other cities and states have found ways to grandfather current assault weapons owners.

The options include requiring owners to render the weapon inoperable and or registering it," Cutilletta says.

As far as the Columbus process is concerned, nothing officials is on paper yet. The drafting process will likely start after this week's hearing