The coming Democratic Primary has begun in earnest and invariably somebody begins discussing the idea of reinstituting an assault weapons ban. Most recently, Bernie Sanders has entered the fray:
I'm running for president because we must end the epidemic of gun violence in this country. We need to take on the NRA, expand background checks, end the gun show loophole and ban the sale and distribution of assault weapons.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) February 20, 2019
The common refrain is that assault weapons are “designed specifically to kill”, their intended use is for “military purposes”, and they were never meant for private ownership.
But what is an assault weapon exactly? Despite the use of the term by supporters of tougher gun laws and its consistent presence in the news, it is not a term used by almost anyone familiar with military or civilian weapon systems.
Why, you might ask, is the term “assault rifle” not used? After all, the various rifles used by the world’s militaries, such as the M16, M4, SCAR, G36, or FAMAS, are all classified as assault rifles (something avid video gamers even know). So why do we not use the term assault rifle? Because assault rifles are already banned for use by most civilians.
An assault rifle is a modern firearm, typically utilizing a lighter rifle caliber, made of a light (usually synthetic) frame and capable of selective-fire. Selective-fire is the key portion of the assault rifle definition. In order for a firearm to be considered an assault rifle, it must at least have the dual capability of semi-automatic fire (one trigger pull, one shot) and a form of automatic fire (one trigger pull, several shots). Assault rifles are military/paramilitary specific weapons and are not available on the general civilian market.
What is available to most civilians are variants of the Armalite-15, and weapons inspired by it, which have had the selective-fire feature removed. An AR-15 purchased at a local gun store looks, feels, and appears just like it’s military cousin. But because it has had the selective fire options removed it is no more dangerous than any other semi-automatic weapon on the civilian market, including the majority of popular shotguns, pistols, and target shooting rifles. In fact, because the typical AR-15 civilian variant maintains the light .223 caliber, this weapon is in actuality one of the least lethal weapons available to the civilian population. To make it even less effective for civilian use, its design makes it among the least likely to be successfully carried concealed. (The concealment factor is actually the major factor that makes a weapon dangerous in civilian use. The rate of handgun use in firearm violence is astronomically higher than all other firearm categories combined because handguns are so easily concealed).
The AR-15 is often used by mass shooters because it is cheap, widely available, and looks scary. But the actual effectiveness of the weapon is far below other weapons available on the market.
This brings me back to my original question: what is an assault weapon? From the standpoint of actual terminology for weapon systems, there is no such classification as an assault weapon. It is a legal term with loose and variable definitions. And, most pointedly, none of the definitions that have been used make effective sense for the end resolution they seek. Generally speaking, most assault weapons related laws are built around magazine-size and aesthetic appearance.
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The Federal Assault Weapons ban implemented by President Clinton defined, in essence, an assault weapon as anything that looks like a military-style weapon, is semi-automatic, and has a magazine that holds more than 10 bullets. This classification is vague to the extreme. It casts too large of a net to be realistic while simultaneously allowing for too many stark loopholes to be effective in its goals.
For example, a Ruger 10/22 (generally used for small-game hunting and competition shooting) is semi-automatic, designed based on the M1 Carbine from World War II, and easily utilizes magazines that hold up to (and beyond) 30 bullets. While this firearm was not banned under the Federal Assault Weapons ban (it was too prevalent to be realistically removed from the market), it does meet the law’s definition of an assault weapon in nearly every way and yet, despite estimates showing over 6 million 10/22s being sold on the civilian market, I have not been able to find an instance where the weapon has been used successfully in a mass shooting.
Now, compare this to the Savage-Springfield 67H and Savage 311-D Shotguns. Have you heard of these firearms? The Savage-Springfield 67H is a pump-action 12-Gauge shotgun, and the Savage 311-D is a double-barrel break-open shotgun. Neither weapon meets any definition of an assault weapon, in any written law, unless the barrels are sawn off (an easy aftermarket customization which couldn’t be controlled by a ban). Few could recognize these shotguns on sight, few have ever heard of them, and there is not a single law or ban on the table that would keep these shotguns out of the hands of criminals…and yet these are the exact models of shotguns used to devastating effect by the Columbine Shooters.
This is why assault weapons bans are empty threats based on empty fears. They are reactionary attempts to ban prevalent firearms, which could never be fully removed from American society, using empty definitions that do not take into account the actual lethality of different types of firearms. Such bans will solve absolutely nothing and would likely make matters worse. Even more troubling to consider is that when such laws inevitably fail, gun control advocates will cast an even wider net using their existing regulations to make it almost impossible for American citizens to obtain the firearms best suited for their personal defense. Because there is no set definition of what an assault weapon is, the working and legal definition can change. After all, what firearm isn’t “designed to kill” and which firearms do not have the fingerprints of military development somewhere in their pedigree? It is clear that the current call for an Assault Weapons Ban would accomplish nothing but a foot in the door.