The NY Times is surprisingly fair and balanced in explaining the controversies around a proposed "assault weapons" ban. However, by the time they are done they leave us wondering just what the objective is of the folks backing a ban.
The most basic criteria have to do with a firearm’s ability to fire multiple rounds quickly. Because of this, the firearms included under any assault weapons ban are usually semiautomatic, meaning that a new round is automatically reloaded into the chamber but is not fired until the trigger is pulled again. The weapons also have detachable magazines, allowing them to fire 10, 20, 30 rounds or more without the need to insert a new magazine.
After that, however, the definition becomes more difficult. In calling for a renewed ban, Mr. Obama on Wednesday singled out “military style” weapons.
Those could include features like a pistol grip, designed to allow a weapon to be fired from the hip; a collapsible or folding stock, which allows the weapon to be shortened and perhaps concealed; a flash suppressor, which keeps the gun’s user from being blinded by muzzle flashes; a muzzle brake, which helps decrease recoil; and a threaded barrel, which can accept a silencer or a suppressor. Bayonet lugs or grenade launchers are also sometimes included.
But there is disagreement about which features are worrisome enough to include in a ban. And existing state bans differ in how many features they allow.
Advocates for an assault weapons ban argue that the military features were intended to enhance the firearms’ ability to kill.
But many gun owners argue that they are simply “cosmetic.” The owners reel off makes and models of firearms — rifles by Saiga and Remington, for example — that are mechanically identical to the weapons singled out by bans but that do not have pistol grips or other styling features.
OK, so banners say the features are dangerous and opponents say they are cosmetic. Will the Times, or anyone else, please gather some experts who can explain to us why flash suppressors, bayonet lugs and fittings for grenade launchers are a serious public safety problem? This Times graphic is a helpful starting point.
I accept that the collapsible stock (especially a folding stock) could aid concealment. The pistol grip seems to have found popularity even in modern hunting rifles, so that may just be an ergonomic thing. Let's cut to Wikipedia:
Tools with pistol grips run the range from hand saws to pneumatic nailers. Often the word "gun" appears in the name of pistol-gripped tools such as the glue gun, caulking gun and nail gun. A number of tools, like firearms, have a forward pistol grip. Drills and grinders often include this feature for added control.
One of the reasons the pistol grip style is so common in machinery is because it is possible to ergonomically position the operating controls. For example, on the AR-15 and M16 rifle, a right handed user's index finger can control the trigger and magazine release, while the thumb can control the safety or fire mode selector switch, all without needing to remove the palm from the grip.
For an example of a hunting rifle with a pistol grip, here is the Remington Model R-15:
We created an unrivaled combination of precision accuracy, blazing-fast follow-ups and hunt-specific features. The new R-15 VTR™ modular repeating rifle was born of the most advanced design aspects of AR-15-style rifles available today with a strong emphasis on optimizing form and functionality for the modern predator aficionado. The results are astounding – with very serious implications for every coyote, fox or bobcat that crosses its path.
Control comes naturally with the ergonomic pistol grip and lightweight overall design of the R-15. Its uppers and lowers are machined from aluminum forgings for featherweight durability, and the fore-end tube is drilled and tapped for accessory rails. This new family of firearms consists of three models. Each was designed with input from leading predator authorities and decked in the ultra-effective Advantage® MAX-1 HD™ camouflage to blend with sage, open country and a multitude of hunting terrains. All come with five-round magazines and are compatible with all aftermarket AR-15 magazines and other accessories.
I assume the assault weapon banners are somewhat terrified by this weapon due to the pistol grip. But would the lack of a flash suppressor, bayonet lug and grenade launcher mount give them peace of mind if a fellow were brandishing this in a movie theatre? (FWIW, yesterday we posted pics of the benign Ruger Mini 14 Ranch Rifle and the terrifying Ruger Mini 14 Tactical Rifle and we have the same question - which one would you rather see in the hands of an assailant, and why?)
For my money the issue is the detachable magazine. Quick reloading helps people in a home defense situation but it also helps crazed killers.
[Jacob Sullum of Reason has more, including this from a Banner:
An effective law will focus on one prime feature—the ability to accept a high-capacity magazine.
Mr. Sullum explains the problems with that.]
As to whether banning magazines that hold more than ten rounds will be enforceable or effective, well, I assume it will reduce ownership among law-abiding citizens. However, there are millions of larger magazines already in existence, and we are talking about metal boxes with springs - the criminal world that brings us heroin refined from opium, chrystal meth refined from Sudafed, and car parts chopped from live cars can probably make as many bootleg ammunition magazines as they can sell.
Fortunately, rifles are rarely used in homicides, so a magazine ban probably wouldn't provide a statistical blip, effective or otherwise.
ERRATA: Obama is also hoping to remove armor piecring bullets from the market. If I routinely wore a bullet proof vest I would surely back such a move. But one might argue that, paradoxically, folks without vests are MUCH better off getting shot with armor piercing bullets that will pass right through them. Then again, if the police are safer, maybe we will all be safer...
DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT HISTORY... The Times tells us that the politics of the phrase "assault weapon" has changed.
The label, applied to a group of firearms sold on the civilian market, has become so politicized in recent decades that where people stand on the gun issue can often be deduced by whether they use the term.
But Second Amendment groups — and many firearm owners — heatedly object to the use of “assault weapon” to describe guns that they say are routinely used in target shooting and hunting. The term, they argue, should be used only for firearms capable of full automatic fire, like those employed by law enforcement and the military. They prefer the term “tactical rifle” or “modern sporting rifle” for the semiautomatic civilian versions.
Yet as Mr. Peterson noted in his buyer’s guide, it was the industry that adopted the term “assault weapon” to describe some types of semiautomatic firearms marketed to civilians.
“Assault rifle” was first used to describe a military weapon, the Sturmgewehr, produced by the Germans in World War II. The Sturmgewehr — literally “storm rifle,” a name chosen by Adolf Hitler — was capable of both semiautomatic and full-automatic fire. It was the progenitor for many modern military rifles.
But the term “assault rifle” was expanded and broadened when gun manufacturers began to sell firearms modeled after the new military rifles to civilians. In 1984, Guns & Ammo advertised a book called “Assault Firearms,” which it said was “full of the hottest hardware available today.”
“The popularly held idea that the term ‘assault weapon’ originated with antigun activists, media or politicians is wrong,” Mr. Peterson wrote. “The term was first adopted by the manufacturers, wholesalers, importers and dealers in the American firearms industry to stimulate sales of certain firearms that did not have an appearance that was familiar to many firearm owners. The manufacturers and gun writers of the day needed a catchy name to identify this new type of gun.”
So the NRA has abandoned Hitler's rhetoric but the assault banners have adopted it. Hmm, we are close to a Godwin's Law issue here.