By Jeff S.
The following is primarily intended to educate those who think restricting “assault weapons” is an effective policy to reduce gun violence and help them to understand part of the reason why gun enthusiasts oppose such laws. As such, much of the discussion is likely to strike the average TTAG reader as very basic.
Whenever a murder rampage employing guns occurs, it is natural for people to wish that there were some simple and effective action that could be taken to prevent or significantly reduce the impact of such tragedies. Since mass murderers often select military-style semi-automatic firearms as effective, easy-to-use tools where they are available, many believe that restricting or banning “assault weapons” would be an effective policy to significantly reduce gun deaths from such incidents.
This position relies largely on the belief that there is some definite, bright line dividing “assault weapons” from less deadly weapons, and that those less deadly weapons are adequate for the average citizen’s self-defense. This position also relies on the related belief that deadly assault weapons are excessive to any legitimate need that the average citizen may ever have. Thus they can be restricted without any adverse effect on law-abiding (i.e., “sane” , “rational”, “responsible”, etc.) citizens. Those more familiar with firearms recognize both these beliefs as two sides of the same load of codswallop.
Firearms have a continuum of effectiveness for shooting other people, either to commit murder or to stop an attacking would-be murderer (or gang of murderers). In the later case, the ability to project a credible threat may serve as a sufficient deterrent that actually shooting the attacker becomes unnecessary.
Certain features (semi-automatic action, detachable magazines, larger-capacity fixed magazine, etc.) make firearms more effective than firearms that lack those features. As various features of firearms are defined as “assault” features and restricted from the average citizen, the firearms available to the law-abiding become less effective for both criminal misuse and for responsible self-defense use.
Any restriction that may hypothetically save lives in a mass shooting also restricts the ability of a citizen to defend themselves using such a firearm. There is simply no way to avoid this trade-off. So, when well-intentioned activists call for a ban on “assault weapons”, citizens who rely on such weapons to potentially defend themselves and their families see this as a demand that they accept less-effective weapons to defend their loved ones. Predictably, they tend to oppose such restrictions.
Unfortunately, such restrictions impact the law-abiding citizen more than they impact the would-be mass murderer. The law-abiding citizen is limited to what is legally permitted, while the murderer is free to make illegal modifications to their weapons to make them more effective.
Someone contemplating multiple murders is unlikely to be deterred by the thought that, if caught, an illegal weapons charge might be tacked onto the multiple murder and attempted murder charges. Murderers also have the advantage of being able to plan their attack to overcome any limitations in the weapons that are available to them.
Limited to 10-round magazines, the average citizen is limited to the magazine in the gun and perhaps one or two spare magazines that are carried, because it is impractical to have more at hand on an ongoing basis for use against an attack which may occur at any time. In contrast, the murderer who knows when they plan to attack can simply stock up on such magazines and carry a satchel full of loaded magazines when they attack.
Similarly, a mass-murderer can employ such techniques as arson and/or improvised explosives to compensate for any limitations in the weapons available to them, while these have no value to the citizen engaged in self-defense. When attacking, a murderer is free to smash a motor vehicle into a building to gain entry, block exits to prevent victims escaping, and take other actions that have no equivalent advantage for the law-abiding citizen.
Quite simply, legal and moral restrictions are primarily effective on those who choose to be responsible, and are far less a hindrance to those who are plotting actions that completely disregard responsibility. We see, repeatedly, that a large proportion of rampage killers put considerable effort into planning their attacks, studying previous attacks and trying to figure out how they can do “better”.
With knowledge of their intended target and time of attack, they can plot how to minimize any restrictions on weaponry when carrying out that particular attack. They have the luxury of working around weapon restrictions, while the law-abiding citizen does not.