What’s an Assault Weapon?

Last week Sen. Dianne Feinstein
introduced a new, supposedly improved version of the federal
“assault weapon” ban that expired in 2004. But like that earlier
law, which the California Democrat also sponsored, Feinstein’s
bill prohibits the manufacture and sale of guns based on
characteristics that have little or nothing to do with the danger
they pose. Although arbitrary distinctions are a defining characteristic of
“assault weapon” bans, recent polls indicate
that most Americans support them. New survey data suggest one
possible explanation: Most Americans don’t know what “assault
weapons” are. 
Feinstein’s bill would ban “157 dangerous military-style
assault weapons” by name, along with other guns that meet certain
criteria. A rifle is considered an “assault weapon,” for example,
if it has a detachable magazine and one or more of these “military
characteristics”: a pistol grip or forward grip, a grenade launcher
or rocket launcher, a barrel shroud, a threaded barrel, or a
folding, telescoping, or detachable stock. The New York Times
reported that Feinstein’s bill would “ban certain
characteristics of guns that make them more lethal.” But how
exactly do these features—a threaded barrel, say, or a grenade or
rocket launcher without grenades or rockets (both of which are
banned for civilian use)—make a gun “more lethal”? The
distinguishing characteristics of “assault weapons” are mainly
cosmetic and have little or no functional significance in the
context of mass shootings or ordinary gun crimes. CNN made an even bigger mistake,
claiming the bill is aimed at “rifles capable of firing
multiple rounds automatically.” In reality, the bill has nothing to
do with machine guns such as those used by the military, which fire
continuously (or “automatically”) when you pull the trigger and are
already tightly restricted by federal law; it deals only with
semiautomatics, which fire once per trigger pull. Perhaps we should not be too hard on CNN, since President Obama,
supports a new ban on “assault weapons,” also seems to think
they are machine guns, referring to them as “AK-47s”
and “automatic
weapons.” Contrary to the impression left by such descriptions,
“assault weapons” are not distinguished by their rate of fire, the
number of rounds they hold, or the caliber of their
ammunition. A Reason-Rupe Public Opinion
Survey conducted this month suggests such misconceptions are
common. After asking the 1,000 respondents if they thought people
should be “prohibited from owning assault weapons,” the survey
(which is sponsored by my employer, the Reason Foundation) asked
half of the sample to “describe an assault weapon.” The answers are
illuminating. About two-thirds of the respondents described “assault weapons”
as guns that fire rapidly, guns that can fire a large number of
rounds without reloading, guns with a lot of “power,” or guns used
by the military. More than a quarter described them as “machine
guns,” “automatics,” or the equivalent (e.g., “multiple rounds with
just one pull of the trigger”). Overall support for banning “assault weapons” was only 44
percent, considerably lower than the 60 percent or so in recent
Gallup and ABC News
polls. But there was majority support—53 percent and 59
percent, respectively—among people whose descriptions of “assault
weapons” emphasized rate of fire (including those who mistakenly
described them as machine guns) or ammunition capacity. One respondent said an “assault weapon” is a “weapon that is
similar to the one that caused the tragedy in Newtown,” referring
to last month’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. That
horrifying event, of course, was the pretext for Feinstein’s bill,
although the Bushmaster rifle Adam Lanza used to murder 20 children
and six adults
was not covered by the old federal “assault weapon” ban or by a
similar law in Connecticut. Feinstein has addressed that omission by adding Lanza’s rifle to
her list of prohibited weapons, which may seem emotionally
satisfying. But since would-be mass murderers have plenty of
equally effective alternatives, it is logically equivalent to
banning the car Lanza drove to the school.

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What’s an Assault Weapon?

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