EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of a series of articles on gun rights. Each addresses a common anti-gun trope.


“Assault weapons used to be banned! They should be banned again!”

In light of Senator Dianne Feinstein’s new bill to ban assault weapons, it is worth visiting this trope to understand just how amorphous, banal, and useless such a ban would be.

Lets start with the amorphous. And lets start with an obvious statement. To regulate or ban something, you must first define what that something is. In the case of firearms, there are many well-established definitions. A machine gun/automatic rifle fires rifle ammunition continuously via a single trigger pull/depression. A submachine gun is like a machine gun, but it fires pistol ammunition instead. A semi-automatic rifle or pistol fires a single bullet for each pull of the trigger, and automatically loads the next cartridge into the chamber. All these are “autoloaders,” they are defined by how they function, and there is no dispute as to these definitions.

Similarly, a pump-action rifle or shotgun requires a pumping action on the part of the user to load a cartridge or shell into the chamber (and, obviously, fires one round per trigger pull). A lever action rifle requires, you guessed it, operating a lever to load the next cartridge. A bolt action rifle, a revolver, … you get the idea. All these involve some form of manual loading of the next round to be fired, and as before, they are defined by how they function and there is no dispute as to the definitions.

An assault rifle is a autoloading rifle capable of “selective fire.” That is, the user can select between semi-automatic and full-automatic function, by moving a lever. Again, no substantive dispute in this definition.

But, now, contemplate the term “assault weapon.” What is an assault weapon?

What it is not is an assault rifle. Why? Because the law permits civilians to own assault weapons, but does not permit civilians to own assault rifles (with an exception, discussed later). Thus, assault weapons and assault rifles are different things, no matter how often the phrases are conflated, substituted, or misused by the press, the public, and politicians.

This distinction is made even more clear by the various laws, federal and state, past and present, that have been written to ban assault weapons. These laws take two paths to defining the term “assault weapon.” One path is the listing of specific models, following an “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it” theme. The other path is the listing of certain characteristics that, if combined in certain ways, qualify a rifle as an “assault weapon.” These characteristics start with semi-automatic operation and a detachable magazine, then tack on some or all of the following: pistol grip, collapsible stock, thumbhole grip, barrel shroud, bayonet mount, pistol fore grip, flash suppressor, bayonet mount, grenade launcher, et al. In some jurisdictions, two of these features are enough to establish a firearm as an “assault weapon.” In others, one is.

Take a moment to review those features. Do any of them alter the functioning of the rifle? Do any of them change the rifle’s essential nature i.e. the fact that it is a one-bullet-per-trigger-pull firearm? Nope. Some may make shooting more comfortable, but they don’t change the mechanics of the gun. Since there’s no change in functionality due to the addition of these features, the term “assault weapon” cannot be defined functionally. What’s left is a cosmetic definition.

To illustrate this point, consider the figure to the right. At the top is an AR-15 style rifle (I write “AR-15 style,” because an AR-15 is a specific product, like Q-Tips, Scotch Tape, or ChapStick. AR stands for Armalite, the company that developed it, and the history of the AR-15 can be found here). Below it is an AR-15 style rifle that is considered NY SAFE Act compliant. In function and ammunition fired they are identical. The differences? No pistol grip, no collapsible stock. Pure cosmetics.

To further reinforce the reality that the definition of an “assault weapon” is amorphous, we need merely consider the 1994 federal Assault Weapons Ban and the current proposal put forth by Senator Dianne Feinstein. Both involved a mix of the two methods of identification i.e. listing specific models and listing features. Neither put forth a function-based definition. Why? Because there isn’t one. Functionally, these “assault weapons” are no different than semi-automatic hunting rifles with wooden stocks.

Next, consider the banality of demanding such a ban. Without doubt, mass shootings are horrific crimes that shock our sensibilities far beyond the thousands of murders that take place in America every year in less than “mass” events. And, without doubt, even one is too many, and if we can do something to reduce the probability of another one, we should consider it. But, we did enact an assault weapons ban in 1994, one that accomplished nothing, we have banned things in the past (alcohol) and accomplished nothing, and we continue to ban things (e.g. certain drugs) despite those bans accomplishing nothing. Banning things doesn’t work. People always find ways to get what’s banned or to work around the bans. Ban demands are banal: boring, unoriginal, obvious, and useless.

Finally, the crux of the argument: the uselessness of an assault weapons ban as a means of addressing mass shootings, or crime in general.

Start with this fact: the vast majority of gun homicides are committed with handguns. The fraction committed with any type of rifle is less than 5%, and assault weapons are only a small fraction of the total number of rifles in private hands. There are about 350 million guns in private hands in America, and they are split roughly evenly between rifles, shotguns and pistols. That means there are over 100 million rifles out there. Of those, well under 10% are assault weapons. That’s still millions of them, but the fact is that they represent a tiny fraction of both the total gun population and of the guns used in crimes.

Next, consider the fact that their functionality is little different from countless other guns, and consider what criminals would do if they weren’t available. Would the bad guys simply say “I can’t get myself an AR-15, I guess I won’t do my mayhem?” If you believe this, you’re simply deluding yourself.

Now, consider that we have hard evidence of uselessness: the 1994 ban. Studies found that the ban made no measurable difference in gun crime. Given that assault weapons were already only used in a tiny fraction of crimes, and that there is easy substitution of other guns with just as much or more lethality by criminals intent on doing bad things, this should come as no surprise.

Why, then, the concerted focus on assault weapons by the anti-gun crowd? Simple – they’re an easy target. Their superficial similarity to military weapons is enough to lead many to believe they work the same as military weapons do. The ubiquity of full-auto guns in television and movies also leads people to believe that these are the assault weapons used in actual crimes (for more on how Hollywood massively misinforms people about guns, give GRL620 – Silencers a read).

It is also important to recognize that there is a deep dishonesty in the gun-control crowd. How many have scornfully declared “no one wants to take your guns away?” They’re liars. Oh, perhaps not all of them, but enough. The game is to chip away at gun rights bit by bit. Institute a restriction, let the public get used to it, and when it doesn’t achieve perfection, use the next high-profile incident to push for more restrictions. The end game, the ultimate goal, the long con, is a ban on civilian ownership of guns. Don’t believe me? Ask any gun-grabber what his ideal America would look like. I’ll bet you it’s gun-free, or close enough to gun-free for practical purposes.

So,

Gun rights lesson #619: Renewed calls for an assault weapons ban are nothing more than a “do something!” dog-and-pony show. A ban won’t make any difference in crime rates. Worse, the failure of a ban to make a difference will be treated as inadequacy rathe rather than uselessness, and will be an excuse for even more restrictions on the rights of law abiding citizens. Resist these calls, and recognize the deceptions surrounding the ill-defined phrase “assault weapon.”


ADDENDUM: Civilian Ownership of Machine Guns.
In broad terms, and for most intents and purposes, it is accurate to say that civilians cannot own fully-automatic firearms. However, completeness and the existence of nit-pickers behoove me to explain the exception to this assertion. The exception, as you’ll see, is of no consequence in the gun violence debate.

Congress passed the National Firearms Act (NFA) in 1934. This legislation imposed federal licensing and registration requirements on certain types of guns, including all full-auto guns (machine guns, submachine guns, assault rifles), and these are typically referred to as NFA guns. Thus, any full-auto gun in private hands requires a license, a special tax stamp, a lengthy background check, registration at the federal level, and it can only be transferred through licensed dealers. Congress passed the Firearm Owners Protection Act in 1986. This legislation, among other things, prohibited civilian ownership of any newly manufactured NFA guns. Guns manufactured before 1986 were grandfathered, and about 100,000 or so remain in civilian hands. As one might expect, the ban on new full-auto and assault rifles created a scarcity, and today, if someone wants to go through the time and expense to get licensed for one, he still has to find one to buy (and pay five figure prices, to boot). That’s assuming he lives in a state that doesn’t restrict NFA guns.

So, while it is technically false to claim that full-auto guns cannot be owned by civilians, the exceptions are inconsequential. As further evidence of irrelevance, the number of homicides committed with a legally owned NFA gun since 1934 totals 3. Not 3 per year, not 3 per decade. 3. And, one of those 3 was committed by a police officer.

What of bump stocks and other means of modifying semi-automatic firearms to operate or mimic full-auto? Also exceedingly rare, and addressed in GRL355 – Full Auto Conversions (forthcoming).

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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