Why an Assault Weapons Ban Is Not Going to Help

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 firearm experts don’t even 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 extremely difficult 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. They have worked very well.

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 other weapons (discussed below) do turn up.

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.

[Updated] Other Firearms: A variety of firearms are not classified as either full-auto or semi-auto.  Examples are pump-action shotguns, lever- or bolt-action rifles, and revolvers. See also the Field & Stream guide to rifles and the Guns & Ammo guide to handguns.

These 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 not-automatic 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.

29 thoughts on “Why an Assault Weapons Ban Is Not Going to Help

  1. Thanks for the info, maha, since I’m clue-free about guns.

    All I know, is that I never wanted one, and I never needed one.

    And I lived and worked in some tough neighborhoods in the late 70’s, and early-mid 80’s
    And so, I’m against them.

    I’m ok with a rifle if you hunt, are a farmer, and/or a shotgun for home protection.
    But I’m against having handguns in urban and suburban areas. I may see the need for one – or all of these – if you live out in the boondocks. Also, maybe some needs for faster-firing guns in case of predatory animals that travel in packs.

    But outside of that…

    I like what you suggest at the end of this post, maha. That makes some sense. I’d also like to add that ALL guns need to be registered, its users tested every few years for competency, and every gun needs to be insured.

    OK, them’s my $0.02 on a subject I know little about, but am tired of the carnage I’ve seen and read about over the last 30+ years.

  2. This is awesome. Kind of a primer much needed. Most people do not know this. The NRA knows all of this and more. They know how easy it is for a relatively primitive sort to alter a semi-auto into a full auto. They know which designs will hold up to the modification. They also, unfortunately, know how to buy congressmen.

    I am with you. Signing a petition is futile. We need to vote out the sell outs.

  3. Bolt action rifles,revolvers and breech loaded shotguns are all civilians need for home defense or hunting.

  4. Charlton Heston can keep that old flintlock rifle he held aloft at the NRA; no one is going to pry it from his cold, dead hands.

  5. double action revolvers cock the hammer with a trigger pull. So pull the trigger, the cylinder advances, and the hammer comes down on the firing pin and it fires. Pull it again and the next round in the cylinder fires.

    Maximum capacity for a revolver is about 9 rounds – and this is only for very small calibers like .22. Most revolvers have a 5 or 6 round capacity.

    In the US it is very unlikely that firearm owners will surrender semi-auto weapons if their possession was made illegal. To the extent that there are records of sales it is likely that the weapon was “privately sold years ago”, or a similar falsehood. Without putting the 4th amendment completely to rest that’s the end of it until it is used publicly.

    There’s an off chance that a ban on sales could work, and certainly a ban on new semi-autos would cut the supply.

    Licensing possession has a chance of working. The nuts will fight it tooth and nail as a first step towards eventual confiscation. Personally I’ve advocating a license for all purchases – guns already owned would be subject to strict liability for misuse, but not require an ex post facto license to go on owning them.

  6. Banning semi-autos for civilian purposes, coupled with a mandatory buyback of already circulating semi-autos is precisely why Australia has not had a mass shooting since passing this legislation. Add DRACONIAN penalties for being caught with a semi-auto after the buy-back period and you can kiss random mass killings goodbye.

  7. Thanks Maha great info. Didn’t know or hadn’t thot of a lot of this. I would be for treating the 2nd Amendment like all other amendments. They’re not absolute, there are restrictions on them, many for simple practical reasons. You can’t yell “Fire” in a movie theater if there’s no fire and claim freedom of speech because it would endanger people. But yet we let gun owners walk around with semi-auto rifles at the local Wallmart. And most of those D-bags do not look like they know what they’re doing. And treat guns like other things that have the capacity to hurt other people. Insurance on it, registered every year like I have to with my car. And criminal charges for negligence. If a toddler gets ahold of a loaded weapon and kills someone, or him/herself with it, please charge the adult in charge. If I left my car running and a toddler got in and somehow got it in gear and then ended up running over and killing someone, I’d be charged. If we treated guns like we do everything else, like the public health menace they are, we could go a long ways toward doing, uh, something. But after Sandyhook I’m not holding my breath. Orlando didn’t do anything either.

  8. I have some friends who are gun enthusiasts, and they make a point out of making the distinctions that you’ve outlined as a means for dismissing control advocates as “people who know nothing about guns.” So, the distinctions are important.

    I did some reading on the Assault Weapon Ban, it does seem clear that the law didn’t work. Without a mandatory buyback and some of the other measures discussed, renewing it would be useless, and expend precious political capital.

    I’m not expert, but, I had a close friend who was a gunsmith a while back. I think Bernie made a good point, a some semi-automatic weapons can be made to fire full auto with a simple modification. Also, does any major manufacturer still make single action revolvers? I guess there might an application. Back when I was a Boy Scout, there were single shot .22 calibre bolt action rifles that were popular as “starter rifles.” The chamber only held a single round. Some of my friends got them when they were eight or nine years old. I was jealous.

    I probably wrote about this before, but we had a problem with bobcats and coyotes for a while. We had sightings nearly every day. They killed about twenty of our pastured chickens and I thought we’d lost our family dog when she ran up to a bobcat. Fortunately, the bobcat just didn’t consider her worth the effort. I hated to think of what would happen if the cats or coyotes got into the goat yard.

    When I gave it a little thought and talked to a wildlife field biologist, I gave up the idea of shooting the bobcats. They’re rare, and they were happy just to grab a chicken every couple of days, the goats were too much trouble. On top of that, in the early morning light minus the sangfroid of an experienced hunter, the chance of a stray shot was too great a risk. So, the idea of shooting a predator was clearly the last option.

    The bobcats have moved on, and I haven’t seen a coyote for a year or two. We lost some chickens, but, heck, the bobcats were “just trying to make a living.”

    I can understand the folksy image the noble farmer defending his stock, but clearly, that’s an idea for wide open spaces.

    A friend of mine who was a gun enthusiast, moved to Germany about twenty five years ago. He told me that in Germany you have to belong to a hunting club which evaluates your skill and sponsors your application for a rifle. He said that he didn’t bother with it. Basically, once he was in a relatively sane culture that lacked the firearm fetishism, he moved on to other interests. He’s into recumbent tricycles these days. So, who knows? With a little tweaking, maybe we can shift the culture behind weapon worship. Nothing’s going to happen overnight, but, as a whole, we’re getting tired of the carnage and a positive NRA rating may soon be far more of a liability than an asset. I can see that happening fairly quickly.

  9. What are all the differences between the USA and other developed countries regarding gun violence? I don’t think it’s simple. Culture and common values has a lot to do with it, influencing the many people who seem hardwired to be tribal copycats.

    I’ve always liked the idea of having levels of licensing for levels of responsibility (POTUS candidates being at the top of that). But constitutionalist hardliners always seem to see conspiracy behind that kind of thinking. I don’t see why it’s so hard. For example, I wouldn’t want a tested psychopath running my town’s police force.

  10. Actually, a single shot gun is one you have to reload each time you shoot. Mostly these are specialized target shooting guns. A revolver is a multi shot weapon, or repeater, but I don’t know if that terminology is current anymore. More commonly rifles, some target shooting handguns, and a few shotguns. It used to be that semi-auto guns weren’t considered really reliable and not as accurate as other types, but that changed a few decades ago.

    • //Actually, a single shot gun is one you have to reload each time you shoot.// Not according to all the Guns & Ammo articles I consulted. Maybe the terminology has changed.

  11. “Not according to all the Guns & Ammo articles I consulted. Maybe the terminology has changed.”

    It probably has, along with the culture. It’s hard to imagine the kids shooting at soda cans growing up to be hellbent on the kind of firepower available today. (not that I have any idea of what that actually is. I think I might be happier not knowing.) But, that’s what happened. It’s like we had an “arms race” with ourselves, and naturally, we lost.

    Somehow, the wind seems to have shifted. If I went in for really dark humor, I might say a couple more big mass shootings, and we’ll be there. It’s horribly sad that even if we had irresistible momentum, that might be too optimistic. But, nonetheless, I’m starting to think we can win this fight. The NRA and their tools are looking more twisted and malevolent every time one of these tragedies happens, and they’re happening all too often.

  12. I just took a quick, very quick so it’s possible I missed something, look at the Guns and Ammo website, and I didn’t see anything that contradicted my statement. I’d be curious if the terminology had changed in that way, because it doesn’t make a lick o sense to call any repeater a single shot gun.

    I could be wrong there but I’d be surprised. I like being surprised though, so if I am definitely wrong I’d appreciate seeing some links showing it.

    Is it possible you mistook the term single action for single shot? That’s the kind of pistol you have to cock before firing, like the classic western six-shooter. There’s also single action and double action semi automatic handguns, single action which need to be cocked before firing the first shot (the reloading action then cocks the gun for subsequent shots, unlike a single action revolver which needs to be cocked before each shot. A double action handgun is both cocked and fired via pulling the trigger, although you can cock a double action revolver like you would a single action.

    There’s also the term single stack, which refers to a semi-auto whose magazine carries bullets in a single stack rather than in a staggered side by side arrangement. The staggered arrangement is something that started in earnest just a few decades ago, as before that such magazines tended to jam. The side by side stacks of bullets allow for many more rounds per clip.

    Now the bottom line is that the various rightwing “you don’t know the proper terminology so your overall opinion is worthless” arguments are stupid and wildly dishonest.

  13. “you don’t know the proper terminology so your overall opinion is worthless” arguments are stupid and wildly dishonest.”

    Exactly, I always assume that people are putting forth their best argument, and if they choose to sidestep, then they don’t have an argument.

    I am so grateful that Maha is reading “Guns and Ammo.” so that we don’t have to. Gun enthusiasts have a level of enthusiasm and a jargon that clearly identifies who is a friend and who is a foe, a shibboleth. It serves to shift the burden from the necessity for them to justify the possession of lethal weapons to the necessity for others to justify limiting them. So far their strategy has been successful.

  14. What difference does it make how one defines a gun? The bottom line is the only purpose of a gun, no matter how it shoots, is to kill. IMHO, nothing will change until the culture changes.

  15. Ah..my dream of having “Ma Deuce” installed on my roof continues to be squashed…As this Gun conversation continues…we are always going to be subjected to the many lies and false justifications from the right wing of the right wing…As well as, the same type of false narratives coming from the Left wing of the left wing…Looking back through history, and back to the point where it was discovered that using black powder to power a projectile that can be lethal, MANKIND has been fascinated, infatuated, and driven mad with the thought of having such a powerful weapon/tool…all throughout history, men have gone to great lengths to improve, and perfect such technology…We Americans are not the first to be so enamored of such power…POWER…that is what a gun provides to the one at the safe end of the weapon feels…even when shooting targets, there is a feeling of POWER…that instant of ultimate POWER…Knowing that one can change things in a fleeting moment of extreme power…As one who has had that particular experience of being shot at, I understand that POWER…but the whole thought of we Americans are nothing more than a bunch of gun crazed blithering idiots is wrong…only a small portion of America is that crazy and wrong…How small or how large that portion is, cannot be detailed until we have some kind of meaningful conversation, and ACTION on gun safety…as to changing American Gun Culture, forget it…we are a Gun loving nation, have been and always will be…we need the cowards in congress to make honest and decisive laws to try to prevent having more of these mass shootings, to prevent more of the suicides and to prevent the all out stupidity of the GOP supporters….History needs to be studied and understood…and Greed needs to be replaced with good laws and regulations…

  16. Change the culture, repeal the 2nd amendment. I propose this as a long objective that is doable in maybe 20-30 years. If that idea sounds beyond the pale, it’s already in the mainstream from Justice Ginsburg. Her take publicly on the 2nd is that it’s an anachronism from the days when we didn’t have an organized military. That it’s essentially redundant. Proposing the idea of repeal of the 2nd as worthy of mainstream debate is a radical idea that can catch on over time. It’s been done before. Most recently, Tobacco, the love of which was as hardwired into our culture as guns. I smoked on airplanes and in grocery stores for chrissakes. It took 40 years, but look at the progress we made on that front against an enemy richer and more malevolent than the NRA. Further back in time, consider prohibition. It’s hard to appreciate in hindsight the vile effects unregulated alcohol trade and consumption had on American society during the 19th and early 20th centuries. After at least 50 years as a mass movement, the temperance movement succeeded. One positive legacy of that failed experiment is the strict regulation of alcohol. Declare war on the 2nd amendment and start moving that Overton window toward admitting the discussion of it’s repeal into the sphere of legitimate debate. I’m not suggesting this as a replacement for the great solutions offered above. Or to impede the discussion in this thread of the myriad technicalities involved with regulating firearm technology. I just think that a permanent solution would better succeed with the sanctioned consent of the governed. The removal of the 2nd amendment would be a mighty affirmation of that consent as well as a societal endorsement of sanity over irrational gun fetishism. It would take a generation but it would be worth it.

    • zoomar — I agree. Repeal (or extreme revision) of the 2nd Amendment must be the long-term goal, and the more we talk it up the more likely it is to happen eventually. Right now I can’t even find polls for the idea.

  17. The NRA makes a lot of noise about the 2nd Amendment and the rights of citizens, but the bottom line for the organization as a lobbyist for gun manufacturers is expanding the market for gun sales. The cultural love of guns and violence and the rights selective obsession with the Constitution made their job that much easier.

    Rather than repeal the 2nd Amendment, we need to get proper interpretation of it. It clearly speaks of a “well regulated” militia, and yet these words and their meaning are studiously ignored by the NRA and their allies on the right, who have also worked to bind this issue up with the right wing shibboleths of white people as an oppressed group who now need to “protect themselves” from the dark hordes who have taken their America.

    We can do like Australia and fix this, but unlike with Australia the effort here will be a long game over likely decades of time to change, given the entrenchment of cultural beliefs and the work of organizations like the NRA.

  18. America will never, ever get over its sick, stupid fascination with guns. If blowing 20 children into bloody pieces makes no difference, what will? 50 kids? A hundred? More articles like this? How many have there been? Letters to the Editor? Impassioned speeches? Nothing is going to change the minds of people who worship a holy artifact.

    The adolescent love of guns is a uniquely American thing; the rugged individualist carving an Empire out of the wilderness like it’s still the 18th century. The rest of the world looks on with morbid fascination and disbelief.

    p.s. Oh, and thanks so much for the obligatory minutiae about full-auto versus semi-auto, clips versus magazines as if that actually has meaning.

    • Maxx — did the minutae help? I think those of us who want effective gun control need to understand some of this stuff, or else we’ll continue to settle for meaningless “assault weapon” bans.

  19. I have a minutia question regarding an effective assault weapons ban. I’ve heard that it’s fairly easy to convert a military weapon like the AK47 or AR15 to fully automatic and that conversion kits are easily obtained at gun shows or mail order. That would be the main distinction to my mind with a ban. Only certain semi autos can be altered to fully auto. Wouldn’t it make sense to ban them along with the paraphernalia required to convert them?

    • zoomar — yeah, but why stop there? Most of our mass shootings have been carried out with semi-auto weapons, not converted ones. Just ban semi-auto, period.

  20. Maha, I don’t disagree with that at all. You’re right that full-auto converted weapons haven’t been used in any mass shootings afaik. I was just thinking that it might be possible to get at least one category of weapon off the streets, the semi-auto versions of which are often used in mass shootings, without a years-long campaign in the courts. I strongly agree that the term “Assault Weapon” is phony and that it should be replaced in all discussions with “Semi-automatic.” They are the ultimate objective if the carnage is to abate. Glad you agree that getting rid of the 2nd amendment in it’s present form is something that has to happen in this country. Australia really has blazed the trail on this subject. One good SCOTUS decision could get us started on that path.

  21. Col. Lang at Sic Semper Tyrannis (which you have linked, under “Great Snark”) had a post after the Orlando massacre:

    touting the 2nd Amendment (he’s strongly “pro-gun”; I refrained from commenting on that thread). He included a link to Federalist Paper No. 46:


    …which I found rather quaint. In it, Madison does the math to show that the State Militias would easily be able to block any Federal attempts to impose tyranny by force of arms. His calculations are amusing, in light of changes since Madison’s day: unimaginable technical advancement of weaponry; extension of suffrage & property rights to women, Blacks, etc; transportation; etc, etc, etc.

    One thing I found particularly interesting is Madison’s assumption that We, The People would hold stronger allegiance to our State than to our Country. Having lived & voted in several States, I have a hard time imagining feeling that way. Apparently, this is fairly common in the Old South.

    The argument that “we need guns to protect ourselves from jack-booted Feds” has been silly since the invention of Tanks, helicopters, etc; we would all need MANPADS and TOW missiles for that now. I must admit, it WOULD be kinda cool to have a bazooka; but I would be tempted to use it every time someone passes me on the right when the left lane is open.

    Then again, the up-side of widespread ownership of such “firearms” would be a drastic reduction in pollution from the Transportation sector.

  22. Pingback: Update On The Dallas Shooting — No “Assault Weapon” | The Mahablog

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