Assault weapons. The very term evokes images of massive and menacing firearms designed to kill. When people hear that the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 is about to sunset and lose the force of law, it seems obvious that Congress should renew the ban and keep powerful weapons off the streets. However, the Assault Weapons Ban was nothing more than an immoral, ineffective and dishonest method for the anti-gun lobby to push their agenda.
Any discussion of the “assault weapons ban” needs to begin with a history lesson to dispel some of the myths. The law bans several kinds of machine guns. A ‘machine gun’ is a fully automatic weapon, which means that rounds continue to fire as long as the trigger is held down. What gun control advocates try to hide, in order to make their law seem significant, is the fact such guns have been banned since the Great Depression. Way back in 1934, Congress banned the use of the ‘assault weapon’ of the time: the Thompson Machine Gun. That is why no one can remember the use of Tommy guns in crimes prior to 1994.
Since fully automatic weapons are already banned, all that is left to ban are semi-automatic weapons, which require one pull of trigger per shot fired. It is this latter type of gun with which most people are familiar. Unfortunately for the anti-gun forces, a ban on semi-automatic weapons is impossible, because they constitute a large portion of the gun market. So what is it the ‘assault weapons’ ban is supposed to ban?
The ban itself is in two parts. The first bans specific guns or gun replicas. Specifically named are infamous machine guns like the Uzi and AK-47. Actual machine guns, as mentioned above, are already banned, so the point of these regulations is to prevent the ownership of guns that look like the Uzi, AK-47, and other infamous weapons. An underpowered weapon could be classified in the ban as an ‘assault weapon’ simply because it resembles a much more formidable gun.
The second part of the regulation pertains to certain attributes, of which a firearm must not possess more than two. Among the things a rifle is not allowed to have are “a folding or telescoping stock, a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon, a bayonet mount, a flash suppressor or threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor, or a grenade launcher.” In other words, a weapon with a grenade launcher is legal, while a weapon with a grenade launcher and a trivial flash suppressor is too dangerous to be owned. Each of these five criteria is either trivial or already illegal.
Rifles are already not allowed to have a compressible length of less than 26 inches. Thus a rifle of 26 inches is legal whereas a rifle of 34 inches that folds to 30 inches is illegal, because it is too small. It should be clear that the ‘folding or telescoping stock’ criterion is only useful as a political tool, because it certainly has no bearing on gun safety.
Similarly, a pistol grip is a very convenient thing to have on a weapon. It is unclear why having a grip makes a weapon sufficiently dangerous to be banned, as the addition seems to be either cosmetic or ergonomic.
The bayonet mount regulation is clearly just a scare tactic. Last year, no one was killed by a bayonet, and it seems unlikely that gun regulations had anything to do with that.
Flash suppressors, like pistol grips, are also largely cosmetic additions to firearms. They are helpful for firing in the dark, in the kind of situation a homeowner attacked by burglars would find himself. Suppressing muzzle flash is not nearly as relevant a criterion as bullet velocity or caliber; yet those criteria are mentioned nowhere in the law.
The final criterion is the biggest joke. Grenade launchers are heavily regulated already. The repeal of the assault weapons ban will not result in one fewer law enforcement agent being killed by a grenade from a rifle mounted launcher, since the number is already zero.
The real use for the ban becomes clear after reading the countless press releases issued from the Violence Policy Council (VPC) and the Brady Campaign pertaining to the importance of expanding the 1994 ban. Every time a cop is killed by an ‘assault weapon,’ further inspection reveals that the weapon was actually not one covered by the ban. Instead, they cry that the rifle was designed by the gun manufacturers in order to skirt the rules, and that the only difference between the legal weapons and the banned ones is cosmetic. However, the whole point of the law was to define ‘assault weapons’ as scary-looking guns. None of the weapons banned uses higher caliber bullets than non-banned ones, none has a higher rate of fire, bullet velocity, or more stopping power.
The core problem for gungrabbers is that any definition of “assault weapons” is necessarily going to overlap with valid hunting rifles. Most of the alleged ‘assault weapons’ are much weaker than most hunting rifles, which makes perfect sense. Most of the banned weapons would be used either at the shooting range or for close range home defense. Hunting rifles need to be accurate from afar in order to down fast-moving game, and powerful in order to kill animals quickly and cleanly. Thus, the only politically feasible ban would be grounded solely in made-up qualities, ranging from the redundant, like grenade launchers, to the silly, like folding stocks.
The strategy of the anti-gun lobby has to be a simple baitand- switch. First, they propose a weakly worded ban on ‘assault weapons.’ Then, when that ban does nothing, they expand the ill-defined class of ‘assault weapons’ to include every weapon that could possibly be used in assault.
Fortunately, it looks like the 1994 crime bill including the ‘assault weapons’ ban will not be renewed and will expire in 2004. This will remove an arbitrary regulation which serves no purpose except to restrict lawabiding citizens from using their weapon of choice for hunting, recreational shooting, or self-defense.
David Barnes is a Senior in Branford College.