The Right Opinion

What's an Assault Weapon?

By Jacob Sullum · Jan. 30, 2013

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, who 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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7 Comments

rab in jo,mo said:

"President Obama, who supports a new ban on "assault weapons," also seems to think they are machine guns, referring to them as "AK-47s" and "automatic weapons.""

This is intentional disinformation, not ignorance on the part of Barry S.
He knows that if people truly understood that the proposed ban is based primarily on cosmetic features, there would not be much support. It is critical that these firearms are perceived as evil by the masses, else there would be no hope of enacting a ban.

What is it about an AR15's pistol grip, threaded barrel and (possibly)telescoping buttstock makes it more lethal than say a Browning BAR or Remington 7600 (also mag-fed semi-automatic rifles) that fire much more powerful rounds than the .223 commonly found in the AR15 platform? Is it because many AR15s are black? Is DiFi a closet racist?

Then there are the nefarious "barrel shroud" and bayonet lugs. I didn't realize that a barrel shroud increases a rifle's lethality - perhaps DiFi can explain how that occurs. Of course we must ban bayonet lugs, after all, there are so many murders committed using rifle-mounted bayonets - NOT!

For the record, rifles with detachable buttstocks have been heavily regulated since 1934. If you take the buttstock off of a rifle, you have just created an illegal handgun - enjoy your 5-yr vacation at Club Fed.

What we have here is evil preying on the ignorant.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 8:35 AM

MAH in Wisconsin said:

We've been introduced by the media to a new story weekly of some shooting in this country. Yet, the follow-up seems to fade into obscurity. I would like to see a lineup of every 'shooter' in the news since 2010. I'm trying to downplay any kind of conspiracy theory here, however, people and little kids are being shot 'weekly' now? What has caused this increase in violence with firearms? I don't buy the argument that the media is just picking up the stories that they didn't formerly report. If we had all the iformation and pictures of the 'shooters' lined up before us would we see any similarities? Why isn't the govt. doing this study? God knows there have been enough of them lately to gather relevant information.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 9:37 AM

rab in jo,mo replied:

Actually, the homicide rate per 100,000 is at a 50 year low according to an FBI report released late last year. But you wouldn't know that if you only followed the MSM. No, they would have you believe that the streets are flowing with blood and gun violence is rampant throughout the countryside.

Aside from the inner cities, where gang members routinely kill each other for wearing the wrong color clothing or other silly reasons, the violent crime rate is actually quite low. But, it would be racist to make this distinction, so instead, the MSM gets the soccer moms all ginned up that their neighborhoods are like downtown Detroit or Chicago.

Mass killings will continue to occur until the truly insane people are off the streets. Any lunatic with a grudge and a gallon of gasoline can inflilct massive carnage at will in a gun-free zone.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 2:09 PM

Robert in NEW Mexico said:

A January 18th news report confirmed that Adam Lanza did not use the ar-15 in the murders at Sandy Hook elementary. He used pistols.

Let's not perpetuate the lie.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 10:02 AM

Travis in Texas said:

"weapon that is similar to the one that caused the tragedy in Newtown," Really?!! Typical liberal mentality! There is no need for an assault weapons ban... Adam Lanza is dead.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 2:37 PM

Dioneikes in Colorado said:

We must all adhere to the statement "Molon Labe" and make it our core value. If we fail, freedom will be lost. Too many Americans have become complacent and too willing to trade away their liberty for supposed government provided security. No Obummah is very close to instituting his socialist government here in my beloved country. I am willing to fight, but I don't see many others who are. I hope I'm wrong and I hope that the millions of gun owners here in America resist. There is a Day of Resistance scheduled for Feb. 23, 2013, if you can take part in it. I have been writing my congress-critters, and my State government but I don't hold out much hope there as they are all DemocRAT-ba'tard traitors who only care about their own wallets. Obummah doesn't have the suck to carry out a forcible taking of our arms right now, lets pray that it'll stay that way. If they want to call me a racist for not going along ... LET 'EM! At least I'll be a free racist!

"Live free or die, there are worse evils than death."

"There are things that gnaw on a man worse than dyin."

Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 3:35 PM

Leaping Spark in Valrico, FL said:

Gun control is nothing but a thinly veiled plan by our Communist President and his lackeys to disarm the American people. Once we are disarmed we are little more than targets for the criminals on the streets and the criminals running rampant in the halls of government.

No guns, no freedom, know guns, know freedom!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 4:57 PM