Pick a shoot-em-up movie, any shoot-em-up movie. Odds are that somebody’s going to have a gun that “sprays” bullets all over the place. Whether it be the Terminator, Robocop, John McLane, Hannibal Smith, Jack Bauer, or Marta from Scarface, machine guns/pistols, assault rifles, and the like are a Hollywood staple. It’s no surprise, then, that many people think that these automatic weapons (by definition: guns that fire multiple bullets with one trigger pull) litter our criminal landscape.

But, as I discussed in depth in GRL 620, so much that Hollywood shows us about guns is simply not true. Ever read a news story about a shooting, and notice that witnesses commonly mistake gunfire for a car or truck backfiring? That’s because Hollywood has conditioned us to expect gunshots to sound like something very different from reality. Ditto with silencers, and ditto with automatic weapons. I cover the ins and outs of automatic and semi-automatic weapons in GRL 619, and I recommend you read it before continuing here to establish a good understanding of the fundamental difference between the two.

Herein, I will focus exclusively on fully automatic guns. As you will recall from GRL 619, the use of legally owned full-auto guns in crime is so rare as to not be worth mentioning in any discussion about prevention. Since the first laws regulating them were passed in 1934, legally owned full-auto firearms have been used in exactly 3 homicides (one committed by a police officer).

What, you might ask, of illegally owned or illegally converted full-auto guns? We can conceive of both, based on what we know about society and what many think they know about guns. Literal tons of consumable narcotics are smuggled into America every day, so it is not inconceivable that full-auto guns are smuggled in as well. As a parallel, consider this list of black market prices for a full-auto AK-47 in different parts of the world. Certainly not cost-prohibitive for a determined murderer. Then there are the illegal conversions. This is a widely-posited “reason” put forth by anti-gun crusaders to justify the banning of “assault weapons.” The thing of it is, it’s simply not true. Can it be done? Of course. Guns are nothing more than assemblages of metal, wood and plastic, and that which one can make, another can make as well. But, is it easy? Not by a long shot. It requires specific skill and access to machine tools, not just a kit and an instruction sheet.

Smuggling and skilled gunsmithing represent significant deterrents to criminal pursuit of full-auto guns, as do the heavier penalties associated with committing crimes with them. Criminals, in the aggregate, do care about penalties, of course, and the evidence that full-auto is a triviality in crime discussions is reflected in statistics that show how rarely they are recovered by law enforcement (even in Scarface-era 1980s Miami, where we envision Don Johnson in pastels fighting drug lords with machine pistols, fewer than 1% of all homicides were committed with full-auto guns). Did it happen from time to time? Yes. But, in the broader context of a gun control debate, full-auto doesn’t even deserve a mention on the agenda.

What of the Las Vegas shooter Steven Paddock’s use of “bump stocks?” What of other tricks and techniques to emulate full-auto? It is telling that, prior to Paddock, the bump stock was little more than a novelty that had never come to the fore as a criminal’s tool. While techniques for bump-fire have been known for a very long time, actual devices are of relatively recent vintage. The BATFE has exercised its authority in permitting or banning such devices at various times, but, again, prior to Paddock, they weren’t part of any substantial gun control debate.

While the layman may think it obvious that bump stocks greatly enhance lethality, this isn’t necessarily so. They greatly degrade accuracy, which raises legitimate questions as to their usefulness, and the attached article attests to that by noting the unusually high ratio of nonlethal-to-lethal injuries. This is mirrored by the lack of previous uses in crime. Still, one high-profile use can certainly inspire copycats, and it seems like a bit of a throwaway concession to accept a ban on bump stocks.

Here’s the wrinkle. Unlike a full-fledged semi-automatic rifle, which is a fairly complex assemblage of parts, many of them machined, a bump stock is a piece of plastic. And, with 3D printing technology becoming increasingly available to consumers, one that can be made at home by anyone willing to invest a bit of money. What good would a ban be, then, other than as yet another useless law that would only serve to turn law-abiding citizens into lawbreakers?

Here’s another wrinkle: 3D printing technology. Already, 3D printers have become inexpensive enough for consumers to buy. Already, liberty-minded innovators have developed 3D printed guns that can be made on these consumer-grade printers. Already, these same folks offer next-level 3D printers that can finish the key, serial-numbered components of rifles like the AR-15, thus obviating any expectation that bans, registration mandates, or other restrictions will work.


Gun rights lesson #355: Fully automatic guns are already heavily regulated. They’re already of exceeding rarity in the commission of criminal acts. Hollywood has filled our heads with lies and misinformation. Stop worrying about them.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.


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