Hardly a day goes by that I’m not asked to sign a petition to ban assault weapons. Here is why I don’t sign them.
Folks, the term “assault weapon” doesn’t mean what you think it means. In fact, it’s so vague it really doesn’t mean much of anything and is not recognized by many firearm experts as a legitimate term. And in researching this article, I find that even firearm experts don’t agree exactly what it means. It’s so vague all manner of semi-automatic weapons used by mass shooters and criminals do not qualify as “assault weapons.”
The federal assault weapons ban in effect from 1994 to 2004 had a negligible effect on gun violence overall; perpetrators simply switched to other kinds of semi-automatic weapons not considered “assault weapons.” The assault weapons ban was a cosmetic law that made people feel good about having done something about gun violence when in fact they hadn’t done much of anything. Let’s not go down that road again.
Before we go any further, let’s define some terms.
Automatic, full auto, select fire: These are firearms that keep firing with a single pull of the trigger, until you release the trigger or the ammunition runs out. Machine guns are full auto.
Assault rifles. “Assault rifle” and “assault weapon” are not synonymous terms. An assault rifle is a military-grade weapon with full auto capacity. Assault weapons are discussed below.
Note that under U.S. law going back many years it is illegal for civilians to purchase and own full-auto weapons, including assault rifles. Congress began passing laws that regulated and restricted these weapons back in 1934, and those laws have been updated several times since then.
Note also that confusing “assault weapon” and “assault rifle” is pretty common. I’ve done it in the past, I’m sure. WaPo did it recently with a headline saying “Assault rifles are becoming mass shooters’ weapon of choice,” But the weapons being discussed in the article are semi-auto, and the writer of the article doesn’t make that clear and obviously didn’t know the subject matter well enough to be writing about it. Full auto firearms, which assault rifles are by definition, already are off the table, folks. Mass shooters nearly always use semi-auto firearms, although a single shot weapon (discussed below) does turn up occasionally.
Semi-automatic: With a semi-automatic weapon you have to pull the trigger to fire a round. However, they automatically re-load as soon as they’re fired, so you can keep firing as fast as you can move your finger until the magazine empties. Most firearms purchased and owned in the U.S. are semi-auto.
Assault weapons: As I said, this is a really vague term that gets defined all kinds of ways. Most of the firearms we non-shooters think of as assault weapons are those that are made to look like those cool, sexy full-auto assault rifles that are illegal for civilians to own. But in state and federal code “assault weapons” are semi-auto, not full-auto. And there are all kinds of state and federal regulations that define weapons differently, so a weapon that might be considered an “assault weapon” in one state might not be in another one.
Very basically, most definitions of assault weapon say it is a semi-automatic rifle, pistol or shotgun with a detachable magazine. But depending on the state, such a weapon might or might not be an assault weapon depending on whether it also has a pistol grip or a telescoping stock or even a grenade launcher mount.
See California’s flowchart explaining which weapons are legal in California and which are not to get a sense of how complicated this all is.
There are all kinds of rifles and other firearms that, at a glance, look more “traditional” –like the rifle you imagine your grandpa used to hunt deer — but are still semi-automatic, and there are semi-automatic “hunting rifles” that can do everything an “assault weapon” can do.
Magazine: The one defining feature of an “assault weapon” that is nearly universally agreed upon is a detachable magazine. A magazine is an enclosed container that holds ammunition and loads it into position for firing. (This is different from a clip, which holds bullets in a sequence. A clip might be fed into a magazine, but they aren’t the same thing.)
Magazines come in many sizes and shapes and capacities. Many of us who favor gun control have argued for years that magazine capacity should be limited to some number of less than 10, for example. Gun enthusiasts insist limiting capacity would only slow a shooter down by seconds, so there’s no point doing it. This sounds to me like a good argument for banning semi-autos with detachable magazines entirely.
Single shot: A firearm that is neither full-auto or semi-auto is called a “single shot” weapon, meaning that once you fire you have to do something to make the next bullet or cartridge or whatever load into place for shooting. Examples are pump-action shotguns or lever- or bolt-action rifles. (I believe most revolvers are considered single-shot firearms, although I’m not sure about double-action revolvers, like the .44 Magnum Smith and Wesson in the Dirty Harry movies.)
Single-shot revolvers are commonly used in robberies, I understand. But, obviously, a single-shot firearm is not the tool of choice if you plan on killing all of the patrons in a packed nightclub, or an entire first-grade class. Single-shot firearms do show up in mass shootings sometimes. James Eagan Holmes, the Aurora movie theater shooter, had a pump-action shotgun with him. He fired six rounds from the shotgun, then went on to fire 65 rounds from a semi-auto rifle, a Smith & Wesson M&P15.
Let’s go back to “assault weapons.” I would like to retire the term. I would like to just focus on semi-automatic weapons, period.
I propose one of two things. We either put extreme restrictions on all semi-auto firearms that would strictly and severely limit magazine capacity, extend re-load time, and make them less easily portable, or we ban civilian ownership of semi-auto firearms entirely. Or, I’d suggest that a federal license would be required to own a semi-auto, and getting such a license would require demonstrating a particular need that a single-shot weapon couldn’t fill. It would also require extensive background checks, psych evaluations, and training.
But don’t ask me to support another “assault weapons” ban. There’s no point.