The Truth About Assault Weapons and Assault Weapons Bans

Thanks to last night’s little cage match, there’s now renewed talk of an “Assault Weapons Ban,” and before people start making wild statements about firearms and their uses, I wanted to step in and try to give a little context to that term. What exactly is an “Assault Weapon?” Are they really all that dangerous? And is an Assault Weapons Ban going to be effective? Just like everything else we publish here, I won’t be pulling any punches . . .

Sometime after World War II, the powers that be started investing in the production of smaller, lighter, higher capacity firearms than those used during the war. Bolt action firearms like the Mosin Nagant m1891/30 and semi-automatic battle rifles like the M1 Garand were sufficient for earlier conflicts, but with the advent of the machine gun and submachine guns, the need for increased firepower in the hands of the individual soldier was fairly apparent.

The designers wanted something that combined the best features of both of those categories — something small enough to carry like a submachine gun, but with the firepower of a full size machine gun. The eventual design that came from all that was what’s now being called the assault rifle.

The term “assault rifle” comes from the literal translation of the name given to the first weapon that fit the definition. The MP-44, or Sturmgewehr as it was dubbed by Adolf Hitler (literally “assault rifle” in German), was a rifle designed by the Nazis in 1944 that delivered the firepower of a machine gun in a man-portable sized package.

The two main features that contributed to the benefit of the firearm on the battlefield were select fire capability and a detachable magazine.

Select fire gave the soldier the ability to either fire a single round of ammo when they pressed the trigger (called “semi-automatic” fire) or fire continuously until the soldier took his finger off the trigger or the gun ran out of ammunition (“fully automatic” fire). This enabled the soldier to either place a single precise shot on target like with the common battle rifles of the day or spray lead, providing a “weight of fire” that was intended to keep the enemy from advancing or taking action.

A detachable magazine gave the soldier the ability to fire longer and quickly replenish the firearm (a magazine is a mechanical device that feeds ammunition into a firearm, often incorrectly referred to as a “clip”). Previous firearms like the M1 Garand only held 8 rounds in an internal magazine that was relatively slow to reload.

But detachability gave the soldier the ability to use a larger 20 or 30 round mag that could be exchanged when empty for a full one in just a couple of seconds. The extended capacity allowed the soldiers to fire continuously for longer, and the ability to quickly change the magazine allowed them to replenish their ammunition supply and keep firing for extended periods of time.

The two most popular designs to be adapted from the MP-44 for use by the modern military were the AK-47 or Avtomat Kalashnikova (automatic rifle Kalashnikov) developed by a team led by Mikhail Kalashnikov and including features from other similar projects of the time, and the M-16 designed by Eugene Stoner. Both were based on the MP-44 design and included select fire capability and took detachable magazines, but the manner in which they accomplished that was very different.

Naturally, while these weapons were originally intended for military use, just like every other firearm designed before them, they were adapted for sale on the civilian market. However, in the United States, the firearms being sold were subject to the National Firearms Act of 1934 and were generally sold without the ability to fire in full-auto mode. Those that were sold to civilians with the fully automatic option still operational were registered under the National Firearms Act and are still tracked by the ATF to this day. They only pass from one owner to the next after a thorough anal exam background check and ATF approval.

NOTE: There have been only two murders ever committed with a legally owned fully automatic machine gun, one by a police officer in 1988 and the other in 1994. No murders have been committed since then.

Once these rifles started to gain popularity with both the military and the civilian shooting population, the mechanical improvements that made them possible began to be implemented in other firearms designs — firearms with fixed, relatively small capacity magazines now had the same basic operating mechanism as an AK-47 running the firearm, for example. And the military firearms began to be adopted and modified to do everything from deer and hog hunting to target shooting.

These days, the AR-15 design (the civilian version of the M-16) is one of the most popular firearm designs in the United States. The reason for that is not its high magazine capacity or its rate of fire, but its modularity. The rifle is the firearms equivalent of a Lego set — it can be changed, reconfigured and tweaked very easily by the end user to exactly suit their use. For everything from short range target shooting to hunting to long range precision shooting, the AR-15 can be quickly modified to suit that role.

As the features of the MP-44 and its derivatives began to filter into other firearms designs, the public wanted a term that could encompass all of these designs into a single class of firearm for the purposes of discussion. Using the original “Sturmgewehr” name of the first such weapon as a base, the term that has generally been used to describe firearms of this type has become “assault weapon.” The term only started appearing in 1989, 25 years after the first civilian AR-15 went on sale, and was first coined by a gun control advocacy group.

Of course, the adoption of this term has been fought tooth and nail by those who legally own and enjoy these guns, as the word “assault” carries a negative connotation and colors the way in which these firearms are viewed. The rising term that has become more acceptable among such populations is “modern sporting rifle” since the mechanics of these types of firearms have been adopted into almost every new firearm being produced and used today and these types of firearms are currently the most popular design of rifle in the US.

While the ability to fire in full-auto mode is generally not available to civilians, the fact is that the detachable mags still allow them to fire longer without reloading. And semi-automatic allows the gun to be fired as fast as the shooter can pull the trigger. These two facts have raised some alarm — particularly among the anti-gun community — with some concerned that the features of these weapons enable someone to commit a “mass shooting” like the recent one in Aurora, Colorado.

The desire to keep these weapons out of the hands of people who intend to do harm to innocent civilians is one that’s shared by both sides of the gun control debate. However, the manner in which that should be accomplished differs greatly. While those who are generally termed “pro-gun” believe the current system of background checks for firearms purchases required by the Brady bill for every sale of a firearm from a gun store is sufficient, there’s a vocal minority generally referred to as the “gun control advocates” who believe the only solution to keeping these weapons out of the hands of evil people is a nation-wide ban of their sale and manufacture.

That option is known as an “Assault Weapons Ban,” and has some issues.

As soon as you start trying to define exactly what constitutes an assault weapon, you start getting into some thick weeds. Assault weapons don’t have a single defining feature that puts a firearm into this category.

The defining features of a true assault rifle are the ability to accept detachable magazines and the ability to fire either semi-automatic or fully-automatic. But the number of firearms in civilian hands with select fire capability are statistically insignificant and detachable magazines are now a standard feature of many slow firing guns. Just like Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity, most people tend to define firearms in this category using the “I know it when I see it” test. But while that might work for pornography, when legally categorizing a firearm, more objective definitions are required.

When the original national “Assault Weapons Ban” was enacted in 1994, the following criteria were used to determine prohibited guns:

Semi-automatic rifles able to accept detachable magazines and two or more of the following:

  •     Folding or telescoping stock
  •     Pistol grip
  •     Bayonet mount
  •     Flash suppressor, or threaded barrel designed to  accommodate one
  •     Grenade launcher (more precisely, a muzzle device that enables launching or firing rifle grenades, though this applies only to muzzle mounted grenade launchers and not those mounted externally).

Semi-automatic pistols with detachable magazines and two or more of the following:

  •     Magazine that attaches outside the pistol grip
  •     Threaded barrel to attach barrel extender, flash suppressor, handgrip, or suppressor
  •     Barrel shroud that can be used as a hand-hold
  •     Unloaded weight of 50 oz (1.4 kg) or more
  •     A semi-automatic version of a fully automatic firearm.

Semi-automatic shotguns with two or more of the following:

  •     Folding or telescoping stock
  •     Pistol grip
  •     Fixed capacity of more than 5 rounds
  •     Detachable magazine.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Because the actual defining feature of an assault rifle is generally absent (full auto), the politicians decided to base their definition on a set of cosmetic features that generally had no impact on the operation of the firearm. Weapons banned under this “Assault Weapons Ban” or AWB were no more dangerous that weapons legally permitted under the AWB…they just looked scarier.

Another issue raised with an AWB is determining if it will actually be effective. The entire point of such a ban is to reduce the number of fatalities and improve the quality of life, but it only makes sense if these types of firearms are actually being used in crimes. Thankfully, the National Institute of Justice published a report in 2003 as the ’94 AWB was getting ready to expire that indicated that assault weapons accounted for, on average, 2% of firearms used in crimes [source], with the highest estimates at no more than 13%. Of those, the vast majority were assault pistols rather than rifles, which are handguns with some of the features listed above.

In reality, the AWB was fueled more by fear and the political desire to “do something” than by fact. A mass murder or attack with an assault weapon, as defined, is what we in the risk analysis business call a “low probability, high consequence” event. One where it will probably never ever happen to you, but it will suck if it does. This is the same reaction we have to every mass shooting, and one I talked about at great length here. It’s an emotional reaction that is disproportionate to the actual risk posed by the situation.

So-called assault rifles are the most popular design for firearms in the country. They’re used for everything from hunting to target shooting to competitions. “Assault weapons” account for somewhere between 2% and 13% of all guns used in crimes, the overwhelming majority being handguns. And distinguishing between a modern hunting rifle and a “military style assault weapon” as these have been called by gun controllers is almost impossible.

In other words, an Assault Weapons Ban would be an ineffective deterrent to crime, detrimental to the economy in terms of manufacturing and hunting and almost impossible to enforce given the ability to change firearms designs to circumvent regulations.

Or, put bluntly, it sucks. And that’s the truth.