After the Sandy Hook tragedy there has been an abundance of emotional discussion on banning “assault weapons”, but very little talk on the intricacies of what that means. Make no mistake, with two daughters, Sandy Hook sickens me to my core, but the blatant posturing for political gain by people who know better almost rivals my disgust at the act itself. Almost. Everyone now seems eager to jump on the bandwagon of how evil “assault weapons” are, without ever really defining what that means. Even previously pro-gun politicians are proclaiming their support of a ban. On the surface, it seems very simple: Create a law that makes it illegal to sell “assault weapons” that slaughter “indiscriminately”. Why can’t that happen? The bumper sticker is because the gun lobby has so much power it overcomes the will of congress. In truth, it’s a little more complicated.
I’m not going to pick a side here. I’m simply going to attempt to explain the problems inherent in the debate, because I was having this very discussion with my wife and was astounded at how little she knew about guns. I’ve purposely steered clear of any discussion about the second amendment, mental health issues, armed teachers, or anything else involving hot-button topics, preferring to stick with some nuts and bolts that apparently aren’t as common knowledge as I thought. My purpose here isn’t to debate, but to clarify.
When I was a boy there was a rash of handgun violence in inner cities, most conducted with very cheap, short-barreled revolvers, and nicknamed “Saturday night specials”. They were junk, and had about as much chance of blowing up in the shooter’s hands as they did harming someone, but they were plentiful and cheap – perfect for throwing away after a crime. They were weapons that nobody – short of a criminal – would own, and an easy vote to get rid of on all sides of the aisle. The weapons served no useful sporting or defensive purposes, so get rid of them. A push came to ban them nationally, but when it came time to specifically define what a “Saturday night special” was, a roadblock appeared, precisely because the weapon functioned exactly like every other revolver. In order to clearly define the cheap junk, the ban would have outlawed every other weapon that operated similarly. Thus, it failed, because the congress – while hating Saturday night specials – did not believe it would be in their best interests for reelection to eliminate a whole class of weapons.
This dilemma continues in one form or another any time a “weapons ban” is discussed. Truth be told, there are certain weapons that wouldn’t bother me if they were banned , but there’s just no way to do that with any specificity that wouldn’t impact other, legitimate weapons. Take the Tec 9 pictured here:
While others will call me a sell-out, I would not blink an eye if this weapon ceased to exist. It’s not accurate, not easy to shoot, and serves no redeemable purpose for anything other than gang violence in my eyes, and yet how could you ban just this gun? Here are your options: A. You can ban it outright – as the ’94 Assault Weapons Ban did, IE – “the TEC 9 is now illegal for sale”. Four months later the maker changes the name to “Homedefender 10” and starts selling again (actually they changed it to “AB-10”, as in “After Ban”). B. You could ban the caliber of bullet the Tec 9 fires, but they’d just re-tool to a different, comparable caliber. C. In the end, the only way to ensure success would be to ban how it operates. IE – ban recoil operated semi-automatic handguns with a detachable box magazine. And here is where I step in, because that definition would ban every single semi-automatic handgun in America, from a target .22 to legitimate weapons for home defense. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with an assault weapons ban.
All semi-automatic weapons function one of two ways: 1. The gas from the burning propellant is diverted and used to chamber another round, 2. The recoil energy of the fired round itself is harnessed to chamber another round. This semi-automatic aspect is what gives the “assault weapon” its ability to put many rounds down-range in a short amount of time, and what makes it lethal. It’s not the pistol grip, the flash suppressor, the fact that it’s black plastic or that it’s evil looking. It’s how it operates. So, if you truly wanted to prevent another tragedy like Sandy Hook (given that you believe the weapon is the problem – please no comments on this, just assume for now) the surest way would be to do exactly what I said above about the TEC 9: ban how it operates. The problem is that if you do that, you eliminate an entire class of weapons that people use for hunting and sport – including weapons like this, which look evil to some but are in reality very, very expensive, tack-drivingly accurate systems used for varmint hunting and competitions:
Some would say that’s a small price to pay, that rifles such as this are no more than expensive assault weapons because they look evil, but you also eliminate this:
A Ruger mini-14 that is called the “ranch rifle” because ranchers use it to protect their livestock from predators. Some would continue that this is still not that big of a deal, but you also would eliminate this:
A Remington 1100 shotgun used by duck and deer hunters all over the United States. In fact, it would eliminate every single semi-auto shotgun no matter the make, along with every semi-automatic .22 target rifle and squirrel gun such as this:
They all operate the SAME way, and thus would be eliminated. A minority would state that’s still worth the cost, but the majority of Americans, when confronted with a ban of this magnitude, would not support such a thing. And congress knows it. With the current emotional state of the country, it’s easy – and a great sound-bite – to get on TV and say, “I’m going to ban all assault weapons”, but it’s a hell of a lot harder to come home to your constituents and say, “I also banned all your shotguns, .22 plinkers, and ranch rifles”. It’s not the “gun lobby” that prevents this from occurring. It’s the American public. Doing so would guarantee that the congressman or senator would not be reelected in all but the most liberal areas. So, not being able to do anything concrete, but still needing to show that they were doing “something”, in 1994 congress went another route, basically going after how a rifle looks instead of its capability. After a lot of gyrations, the ‘94 ban stated that a rifle was an “assault weapon” if the following was met:
Any semiautomatic rifle made after 9/13/94, which can accept a detachable magazine and which has two or more of the following characteristics is a banned Assault Weapon:
- Folding or telescoping stock,
- Pistol grip which protrudes conspicuously below the action of the gun,
- Bayonet mount,
- Flash suppressor or a threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor,
- 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).
So, if the rifle was semi-automatic, able to take a detachable magazine, and had TWO of the other items, it was banned. This, on the surface, seemed to be a perfect choice, and people like Diane Feinstein are today proclaiming that the ban needs to be reinstated, but the truth is that this ban did absolutely nothing because it only discussed cosmetic differences. The average person, not understanding exactly how the ban worked, would look at this weapon and say that, after 1994, it was illegal. After all, it “looks” like one that “should be included”:
Guess what? It wasn’t. By definition, it’s not an assault weapon. Neither is this one:
California went further, creating their own state ban (that’s still in effect) that basically took the federal guidelines and restricted the weapons to only ONE of the extra features. If Sandy Hook had occurred in California with any of these rifles, it would not be classified as an assault weapon, because it’s not by California law:
In the end, defining a weapon by how it looks does little to affect anything, something that even people who are rabidly pro-gun control state, such as the legislative director for the Violence Policy Center, who said, “The 1994 law in theory banned AK-47s, MAC-10s, UZIs, AR-15s and other assault weapons. Yet the gun industry easily found ways around the law and most of these weapons are now sold in post-ban models virtually identical to the guns Congress sought to ban in 1994.”
It’s the weapon operation itself that delivers the devastation, not what it looks like. For instance, this is the Ruger Mini 14 in two different configurations. The top as a ranch rifle, legal after the ‘94 ban, and the bottom as a tactical rifle, illegal after the ‘94 ban.
One looks “evil”, but both possess the same operating system. An operation that, while potentially used for nefarious purposes, is also used daily for a host of appropriate reasons. One crazy asshole should not preclude millions of others from operating weapons legitimately (my opinion). It’s horrific that the “black rifle” was used for a crime, but it’s not any more horrific than someone who uses fertilizer to build a bomb, as Timothy McVeigh did.
After explaining all this to my wife, she said, “So what does that mean? There’s nothing we can do?” And I surprised her. There is one thing I would support. The ‘94 ban did more than discuss weapons. It also discussed magazine capacity (or “clip” if you watch the news), and restricted all to ten rounds or less. Out of everything idiotic in the ban, this one actually had some teeth. The killer in the “Batman” Aurora Theater shooting entered with a 100 round drum magazine. This is ridiculous and serves no legitimate civilian purpose whatsoever. I realize that I’m now treading on dangerous ground, about to be declared an apostate, but a ten round magazine is plenty for any defensive scenario, provided you can shoot – which, if you own a weapon for self defense and don’t know how to shoot it, you are the apostate – and also would have little impact on tactical shooting competitions. Yeah, there would be an increase in forced reloads on some courses of fire, but others are already limited to ten rounds per magazine or less. In truth, when I trained on active duty, we were routinely forced to perform a magazine change as part of the skill required to survive in combat.
And that is the crux. Changing magazines under pressure is not as easy as it sounds. Forcing some psycho to do that in order to continue killing provides an edge. Provides time for others to react. Provides a gap when he or she is essentially as defenseless as the victims on the other end of the barrel. Provides a host of things that can short-circuit a mass slaughter. According to the Sandy Hook medical examiner, each victim was shot multiple times by a rifle at close range. The fact that it was a “black rifle” is irrelevant. It could have been any number of rifles that will pass any “ban” instituted, but given the rifle at hand, with close to thirty casualties, and assuming a thirty round magazine from news reports, he would have had to reload a minimum of once. That changes to five with a ten round magazine. Five different gaps in time for someone to escape.
Unfortunately, in the end logic won’t triumph. Politicians, sensing public sentiment – and understanding the lack of public knowledge – will continue to rail against “assault weapons”, and we’ll waste enormous energy in debating a piece of legislation that – outside of a magazine restriction – completely ignores the fact that it will do little to prevent any future tragedy.
Unlike investigating the systemic societal problems that underlie each of these horrific events in the first place. Okay, I got political in the end. Sorry.