The term “Assault Weapon” was a term coined in the first Federal AWB (Assault Weapons Ban) in 1994. It has been used extensively since then, but the definition is quite vague. In fact, the AWB covered specific makes and models of gun (while specifically allowing others), a sign that the authors were struggling with a functional definition.
In fact “Assault Rifle” is a term that has been used for some time to define what the military uses. A key characteristic of an “Assault Rifle” is the ability to fire more than 1 cartridge per trigger pull, in other words, a “fully automatic” or “burst fire” rifle. These rifles may also have barrel shorter than 16” or be less than 26” in length (with stock fully extended). These are currently banned except for licensed holders by the National Firearm Acts of 1934 and 1968.
The AWB focuses on rifles that look like “Assault Rifles” but are not functionally equivalent. Most gun manufacturers have developed “street legal” models of their assault rifles that are similar but are semi-automatic and have barrels and overall lengths that meet the 1968 NFA standards.
One of the questions that is often heard is, “Why would anyone need a gun like that?” Interestingly, that’s not a question that is asked about cars that are designed to go twice the speed limit. The question is, “What limitations to guns and gun ownership would limit gun injury and particularly gun violence, while minimizing the impact on law abiding gun owners?”
Limiting magazine capacity can limit the rate at which a gun can be fired. No matter how fast you can change a magazine (and with practice, this can be pretty fast), it still requires the shooter to stop shooting. In the case of mass shootings, this could limit the number of people shot. But I don’t see how it would limit the number of mass-shootings. Would a potential mass shooter decide not to carry out his plan because 30 round magazines were illegal?
Changing the limit from 30 to 10 could have an impact in this regard, but changing the limit from 10 to 7, seems arbitrary. Allowing 10 round magazines but limiting the number of rounds legally contained is senseless. Would a shooter choose not to exceed the 7 round limit if he were planning carrying out a mass shooting?
The AWB also addressed 5 other characteristics in the “2 of the following 5” definition that finds a rifle is illegal if it has 2 of the following 5 characteristics:
- Grenade launchers – It seems like a no-brainer: we aren’t allowed to have grenades, why should we have launchers? But since we can’t legally own grenades, why NOT allow launchers? (To my knowledge, no mass killing by civilians have been carried out in this country using rocket propelled grenades despite the fact the grenade launchers are legal under federal law).
- Bayonet mount – Very popular in WWI, but not so much these days. Allowing them for historical military guns would make sense. (To my knowledge, no mass killings by civilians have been carried out in this country using a bayonet after the gun jammed or the ammunition ran out).
- Flash suppressor or threaded for a flash suppressor – This is another area where the law is being preemptive. It’s not the flash suppressor, but the threading that would allow a silencer to be mounted that seems to be at issue. Silencers are banned under the 1968 NFA.
- Folding or telescoping stock – I’m not sure what functionality is being addressed here. Is it because they are easier to conceal or is it just because they make them look more like military weapons?
- Pistol grip that extends conspicuously below the action (now including thumbholes!) – ??? I have NO idea what this has to do with anything!
By make and model
Further evidence that the authors of the AWB were unfamiliar with the firearms addressed is the portion of the bill that lists specific makes and models of weapons that are banned under this bill and specific weapons that are exempted. If the definitions in the bill were clear and functional (as they were in the 1968 NFA), this would not have been necessary.
Limiting Gun Ownership
For better or for worse, the 2nd Amendment is still the law of the land. The Supreme Court has issued several opinions in the last few years that make it clear that it is not constitutional to limit gun ownership to everyone, but it has also been clear that it is constitutional to limit gun ownership to specific classes of people (e.g., felons, people convicted or domestic violence, etc.). In addition, the Court has not struck down State gun registries like New York’s system of permitting handguns.
If laws are going to be preventative, it’s probably not enough just to put a law in place that includes higher penalties for people who commit gun crime if they are legally restricted from owning a gun. Better that we should put procedures in place to prevent those people from obtaining a gun in the first place. Background checks would go some way to limit the ability of this class of citizen from legally obtaining a firearm.
It would require, however, better buy in and cooperation from the States. The current NICS check is not as effective as it should be because many states don’t upload information. The NICS also gets into the slippery area of who can be banned. If I’ve seen a counselor for marital problems, does that constitute a mental illness that would preclude gun ownership? What about non-violent crimes or depression?
A more effective but more expensive and controversial way to insure that guns don’t fall into the hands of people who are banned from owning them is a gun registry. This is a massive project and would take years to bear fruit. At the current time, there is no stomach for such an undertaking. Even in Canada where attitudes towards guns are much more restrictive, the attempt to register long guns failed.
Currently the Federal government permits and registers machine guns, short-barreled rifles, short-barreled shotguns, suppressors (silencers), destructive devices (grenades, bombs, missiles, poison pens, etc.) and another catchall category, “Any Other Weapon” which picks up a lot of exceptions such as “cane guns,” “smooth bore pistols,” disguised firearms, etc.. This program charges very high fees, $200, for transferring these firearms between permitted owners. In addition, the permits are difficult and expensive to obtain.
Some other regulations that are not currently being contemplated seem like they would have a much greater impact on gun injury. First, requiring all guns be stored safely would probably go the farthest to reduce gun injury and gun violence. A significant amount of gun violence involves stolen weapons. Securing guns so they can’t be stolen can reduce the availability of stolen weapons as well as keeping guns out of the hands of unsupervised children. New York’s recent gun law requires safe storage only if someone living on the premises is prohibited by law from owning a gun (a felon, someone convicted of domestic violence, etc.).
Requiring more extensive training for permitting handguns in New York could make a difference. No training is required in New York State to obtain a pistol permit. Would this lower crime? Probably not, but it might lower other gun injuries.
The gun lobby pressured Congress to not only pull but prohibit federal funding of studies into gun injuries. The same amendment limits how gun crime statistics are reported by the FBI. This is kept us and the lawmakers in the dark, leading to bills that address the real problem of gun violence with their gut rather than their head.
A Note on Ammunition
During the recent debate on gun control, there has been some discussion of limiting access to “military ammunition.” The thought is that somehow military ammunition is more dangerous than ammunition used for hunting. Nothing could be farther from the case! Military rounds are “full metal jacket” which jacket the lead bullet completely in copper and keep it from expanding on impact. For over a hundred years the Hague Convention (1899) bans the use “expanding” bullets. Expanding bullets (e.g., “soft point” and “hollow point”) are designed to open up once they are inside the target to maximize the damage, increasing the lethality of the round.” In hunting, this reduces wounding of animals and decreases suffering. The bottom line: hunting ammunition is far more lethal than military ammunition!
The Current Debate
Debate around gun control is different than the debate around other crime. Much of this has to do with fact that we have a constitutionally protected right to gun ownership, but less than half the households in the country own a gun. As I noted in the opening, we talk about guns in very different ways than we talk about other things we own that are as deadly. Worldwide, 31% of traffic fatalities are due to excessive speed. In the US, that equated to about 14,000 in 2005. That same year there were 18,697 homicides, 11,346 were carried out with guns. Of that number, 8,478 were handguns.
There is no getting around the fact that guns were designed to kill and vehicles weren’t, but the limits we place on vehicles travelling on public roads is based on functionality and safety, not character. We don’t say, “Who needs a 300 HP car on the street?”and attempt to ban 300 HP cars…or at least the ones that have racing stripes.
Until there is some data and a willingness to apply statistics rather than emotion to the issue, we will end up with ineffective and polarizing laws that serve no one.