Dec 312012

Owen Courreges

Never ones to resist the urge to milk a tragedy, politicians in favor of gun control have been feverishly scrambling to shoe-horn their agenda into the national consciousness following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.   Among these opportunists has been our own friendly face in Congress, Representative Cedric Richmond, who took the House floor earlier this month to point his finger at the real culprit: assault rifles.

“Every once in a while we will have an event that will shake the confidence of our country and make us take a step back and rationally look at our gun laws in this country and say: “Wait, we’ve done far too much, we’ve extended the Second Amendment too far,” Richmond said.

Richmond went on to explain that the founding fathers didn’t anticipate assault weapons with high capacity magazines, which he dubbed “weapons of mass destruction.”  Richmond is no stranger to assault weapons bans.  They’re one of his pet projects.  He proposed one back in 2008 when he was a state representative, and was soundly rebuffed.

Alas, the shameless capitalizing doesn’t start and end with Richmond.  Just last Wednesday, a hastily formed group calling itself “Doctors for Gun Control” staged a candlelight vigil outside of New Orleans City Hall for the Sandy Hook victims.  Recently elected District B Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell was in attendance.

In a press release sent out before the event, Dr. Pritesh Gandhi, the founder of Doctors for Gun Control, remarked:  “Preach, educate, eat dinner together, and ban assault weapons.  Let’s start with that.”

With all due respect to Dr. Gandhi (and Sesame Street), one of these things is not like the others.

You see, the phrase “assault weapon” is hopelessly vague and has little connection to the actual threat posed by any firearm.  As I understand it, the term came in vogue in gun control circles during the 1970’s, primarily to refer to semi-automatic civilian models of military firearms, i.e., semi-automatic guns of “military style.”

However, the problem is that describing gun as “military style” doesn’t really say much.  What really distinguishes the guns the military uses from guns marketed to ordinary consumers is whether the action is automatic or semi-automatic.  Automatic firearms are also called machine guns; they fire multiple bullets every time you pull the trigger. A machine gun automatically ejects the spent cartridge, chambers a new round, pulls back the action, and then fires all on its own.

Semi-automatic firearms, on the other hand, are named because the gun does all of those things except firing multiple rounds .  Every time you pull the trigger, only one bullet comes out.  How dangerous a semi-automatic weapon is depends primarily on the caliber (i.e., the size of the bullet), whether the gun is a rifle or a pistol (because the velocity and accuracy of the bullet increases with a longer barrel), and most importantly, the skill of the user.

What doesn’t really impact how dangerous a semi-automatic firearm is, however, is whether it is “military styled.”  Guns typically termed “assault weapons” are those with certain characteristics, such as a bayonet mount, a pistol grip, or a folding stock.  Guns may also be termed “assault weapons” by simple government edict, singling out certain models, saying that they’re assault weapons because we’re the government and we say so.

However, the fact that a semi-automatic rifle has a pistol grip is a pretty weak reason for banning it. Although the targeted features do make semi-automatic weapons more useful for personal defense (and, admittedly, for attack), they are hardly the stuff of standing on the House floor in righteous indignation about.

Moreover, in the present context the argument makes little sense.  Although the federal Assault Weapons Ban lapsed in 2004, Connecticut has such a ban in place.  Apparently, the Bushmaster rifle used by Adam Lanza, the shooter at Sandy Hook, was either owned illegally or designed around the state’s assault weapons ban.  Again, these bans focus on mostly superficial characteristics and however they are crafted, civilian models can still be created to get around them.

What’s more, Lanza didn’t purchase the rifle himself – he killed his own mother and stole the gun from her, apparently after failing to purchase a rifle legally.

Ultimately, assault weapons bans wind up being arbitrary an lead to absurd outcomes.  Many bans include incredibly low caliber guns, like .22 rimfire rifles.  The 1994 ban banned pistol grips, so manufacturers responded by making stocks with a thumb hole rather than a full grip.  Characteristics like a flash suppressor, primarily designed to keep a gun from blinding you when it fires, are put in play with respect to legality.

In fact, the only thing highlighted by Richmond and others that conceivably has anything to do with firepower is the size of the magazine, but even this only impacts how may bullets you can fire before reloading.  Reloading can be done very rapidly with semi-automatic firearm.  Moreover, a magazine is essentially stamped metal and a spring; it’s simple to make and thus difficult to regulate.

Accordingly, what we are hearing from Rep. Richmond and Doctors for Gun Control is heavy on political posturing and very short on substance.  “Assault weapon” may be a scary term but it doesn’t convey anything.  Laws targeting this amorphous political animal will not make us less safe, but they will definitely make us less free.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

  • David

    Oh Owen…. we all know what assault weapons are. There is nothing vague about tools of murder. Ban them, now. So what, the 2nd Amendment? Let’s overturn it! In the 21st century, violence can not be the answer to conflict.

    • David,

      No, as I explained, there is no universal definition of “assault weapon.” Practically every piece of legislation defines them differently. As for overturning the Second Amendment, it just isn’t going to happen. Both the Republican and Democratic Party platforms promise to protect the Second Amendment.

      And unfortunately, violence is sometimes the only answer to conflict.

  • Good Job Owen…. The comment by John sounds like one from someone that actually does not understand what you said. Last week over 100 million gun owners in this country did not hurt anyone !!

  • Michel Charbonet

    David…Happy to be informed that you “know” what an “assault weapon” is. I entered the military in 1965 and I still don’t know. (The term is actually a WW I concept, but ill defined.) Your dislike for violence means that you want me or someone else to protect you. But how can we do that if you get car-jacked on St. Charles ? Will the NOPD get there timely ? Have you checked the murder rate in this city recently ? But let’s get back to the “assault weapon” which is actually a .22 caliber weapon (.223). Yep it fires a .22 round. So bullet size has nothing to do with the “Bushmaster” stolen and used in the school shooting. Interestingly the weapon does not fire by itself…it takes a person. Check with Chicago, toughest gun laws in the country…500 dead as of today. By the way David, the AR, the weapon that you seek to band was first made as the AR-10 in .308. I have one, have never shot a person with it, but have shot numerous deer and elk as the .308 is the most popular round for hunting in the country. Sadly David, I bet you have never fired a weapon, thus you know nothing about them. Also, clearly you have never been in the military (nor has most of Congress) so how do you achieve this perfect world ? Sadly, you are just a follower….picking up on some other person’s like of knowledge and repeating it here.

    • Michel,

      I said the term “assault weapon” came from the 70’s based on Merriam-Webster, which claims its first recorded use as being in 1973, but they could be wrong on that. In any case, it’s use in the gun control debate is obviously driven by the fact that complete bans on certain categories of guns by action or caliber are more problematic politically. Going for a vague, ill-defined category that nobody really understands allows the anti-gun lobby to more easily control the debate. It also makes it so their proposals have little, if any, impact on public safety.

      What these laws do impact are otherwise law-abiding gun owners. They’re often confusing and to the degree they have any retroactive application, they can wind up making felons out of people who have done nothing wrong.

  • Terrence O’Brien

    Writing those definitions is so hard. I think that’s why the big time contract lawyers get those huge hourly rates. Drawing dividing lines is also hard, and it never is clear what gun advocates think should be permitted. I gather you are not keen on the general sale of automatic weapons, and surely various cannons, bombs, and rockets are out of the question. Do you believe the current division of permitted and not permitted weapons is ideal, or would you like to see changes?

    • Terrance,

      Writing definitions is hard, but when you’re talking about laws with criminal penalties they shouldn’t be Byzantine (unless the law requires specific intent). I do agree with state-level restrictions on automatic firearms and, of course, cannons, bombs, etc. (which were really considered “ordinance” not “arms,” leaving them arguably outside of any constitutionally protected status). Anything beyond that, though, I’ll normally disagree with.

      In general, then, I do agree with the current division, but I’d like to see most firearms laws handled by states, not the federal government, and even then in compliance with the Second Amendment.

  • The big current furor on gun control has certainly polarized the pro and anti gun camps even further. But why not a compromise? We could agree to a ban on certainly semiautomatic rifles (however defined), and high-capacity magazines (ditto). In return, Congress and the state legislatures could agree to recognize that: 1) The right to keep and bear arms, including the right to carry concealed, is an individual constitutonal right. 2) All states adopt shall-issue permit laws. 3) Each state shall be required by federal law to recognize every other state’s permits. 5) Carry permits WILL be valid at all work places and places of public access. This way, we can have law-abiding citizens legally armed at all times and in all places, for self defense and as a deterrent to criminals: while simultaneously restricting access to those weapons (such as .223 semiautomatic rifles with 40 round magazines) which have great potential for mass destruction, but little utility for legitimate self-defense.

    • Jim,

      A ban on semiautomatic rifles is a non-starter. Aside from being largely useless as a matter of public policy (only a small percentage of guns used in crime are semiautomatic rifles), the fact is that they have their adherents who will fight for them. Semiautomatic rifles are, in fact, very useful for both hunting and self-defense. The drive to single them out makes little sense to me.

      Moreover, the pro-gun control crowd has its sights set on more than just rifles; assault weapons bans also tend to target certain pistols and shotguns. Furthermore, the gun control lobby would never agree to recognized concealed carry as a constitutional right (and if it was so recognized, I fail to see how a permitting scheme, even shall issue, would survive).

      • RalphAdamo

        Despite the exquisite refinement of OC’s language and the precision of his familiarity with guns, the position that gun ownership falls under some category of ‘natural rights’ is absurd. Despite the tone of bored superiority, OC reminds me of the typical apologist for any sort tyrannical or maniacal threat –accuse the innocent of evil intent, make the lunatic position sound sympathetic, even patriotic, and yes, blame the victems. The facts remain: more guns in circulation mean more deaths by gun,one at a time or twenty-six at a time. I remember at least two children shot down recently by wild firing,one a little girl asleep in bed,right here in our own community. Yes, the killer in Connecticut used someone else’s guns;a lot of killers do. Because they are there in the first place, available,ready to hand. Warm to the touch, as OC might tell us, in a more relaxed mood.
        And where is the evidence that these weapons he promotes are used with more than random infrequency in actual self-defense?

        • Ralph,

          I don’t recall going into natural rights theory, but the right to keep and bear arms is certainly a recognized constitutional right. Moreover, I consider it laughable to accuse me of defending some “maniacal threat” when my point is that innocent gun owners are not a threat, and these laws would make them criminals for very flimsy reasons.

          I also just don’t see gun ownership as being a major factor in violent crime. Our violent crime rate is much lower than that of the U.K., which enacted severe restrictions on gun ownership following the Dunblane Massacre in the 1990’s (in fact, gun crime in the U.K. has increased slightly since those restrictions were enacted). While gun laws may have some impact on crime, other factors clearly have far more influence. We shouldn’t indulge knee-jerk policymaking like Britain did.

          Finally, I frankly don’t know how often “assault weapons” are used in self-defense because they’re such a vague category. There’s not a great deal of good data on them, and a lot of false figures floating around. Ultimately, I’ll rest on what I said in my column.

  • Mr. Courreges beats to death the obvious horse…….the conventional definition of assault rifles while declaiming that banning them will make us less free. Has banning machine guns made you less free, Sir?
    We live in a very fucked up culture where the freedom to arm oneself, however noble that may be in the context of self defense, is far and away beyond what the Founding Elitists intended. They scorned the common man, didnt think him or her intelligent enough to vote ( had to own property and only the landed gentry did), and generally saw primitive single shot powder weapons as at least something in the face of the Kings cannons.
    To attempt today to clothe oneself in the questionable aura of the “Founding Fathers” in order to argue the uselessness of automatic weapons bans, is to miss the mark by a mile.
    The real issue is how do you keep weapons out of the hands of the criminal, the mentally deranges and the malevolent. And where do you draw the line. Not whether we are now “less free”. Me thinks thou dost protest too much., and says little

    • Conservatives Defeated,

      Banning machine guns certainly makes us less free, but that doesn’t mean those laws aren’t justified. Perhaps not outright bans, but regulation of machine guns is certainly justified.

      As for the rest, you’re dead wrong about what the founders believed. They didn’t scorn the idea that individuals would own firearms for self-defense; in fact, they wanted an armed populace to serve as a grassroots military force (i.e., the militia) set against a legal backdrop that guaranteed the right of self defense in connection with a right to keep and bear arms. Irrespectively, the right is there and I don’t agree with proposals to simply ignore it.

      As for keeping weapons out of the hands of criminals and the mentally disturbed, we have laws for that, and our crime rate has been declining for decades. Why we suddenly need more laws that make criminals out of people simply for owning certain types of firearms is beyond me.

      • Terrence O’Brien

        You say that regulation of machine guns is “justified,” but I see nothing in the Second Amendment that allows that but would prohibit other regulation such as limitiations on semi-automatic weapons or high capacity clips or whatever. These are distinctions that reasonable people can argue over, and that the people, acting through their legislatures, can make or not make. Your last sentence is complete nonsense as there is no proposal for a law that would make you a criminal for the guns you own. You confuse that notion with proposals that would make you a criminal if you secured a weapon for which legal ownership is not possible.

        • Terrance,

          >>I see nothing in the Second Amendment that allows [regulation of machine guns] but would prohibit other regulation…”<>Your last sentence is complete nonsense as there is no proposal for a law that would make you a criminal for the guns you own.<<

          Not quite. Cedric Richmond's proposed assault weapons ban would have made it a felony if you owned a covered firearm and failed to register it within one year. That's pretty serious. I know other proposals have had similar retroactive provisions.

          • Deux amours

            My only point is that there is too much hyperbole offered by gun enthusiasts. There is no danger that our right to bear arms is in jeopardy. The debate is on the margin of just what versions of modern weaponry should be available to everyone and with what formalities. People can disagree on the details, and we have legal institutions to resolve disagreements. Also, I think failing to register a covered weapon is a different act than simply owning one. I think resort to the Second Amendment is weakest when used to protest licensing or reporting requirements.

  • Diogonese

    Mr. Courreges, Thank you for an excellent article and your ongoing efforts to stand up for our natural rights to protect ourselves, property rights and the 2nd Ammendment, and by extension the Constitution.

  • lbeacham

    Liberals are fully prepared to, in the name of protecting us from harm and want, leave us defenseless and broke. What’s wrong with this “picture”?


    Owen, it doesn’t matter what you call them (assault weapon, military style, whatever…) Semantics aside, we don’t need and should not allow weapons that were clearly designed to shoot and maim/kill people. They should not be made available for the general public, only those in law enforcement and active duty military service members should have them. The only reason people want to “collect” machine/assault/semi/fully whatever is to compensate for their own insecurities. Kind of like when you see a bald, middle-aged man driving a bright yellow Corvette or a good ol’ boy driving a jacked up dully truck with dangling truck nuts.

    We should be encouraging people in congress to introduce no-brainer legislation like this for any occasion. They used this latest occasion to renew the discussion because there will be more open ears this time around (we’re a retroactive, not a proactive society). The lawyers can split hairs and play semantics all day on the issue (as they always do) but the reality is we don’t need these types of weapons in the hands of average Joe American and the 2nd Amendment was clearly written withing the context of muzzle loaded, single-shot guns and a real threat of land invasion.

    BTW, the rest of the world thinks we’re all a bunch of crazed gun nuts and they’re right.

  • Phil Frady

    There is extensive research that gun ownership increases risk factors for for violence in the home. The Harvard School of Public Health has published research on this matter.

    • Phil,

      Yep, research which is funded by the Joyce Foundation. That’s the same Joyce Foundation that underwrites Mayor Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns, as well as the Violence Policy Control Center and other anti-gun groups.

      In any case, correlation is not causation, so I don’t think gun ownership can be called a “risk factor” unless too much is being assumed. It could just as easily be that people in households are more likely to own guns if they perceive they are not safe for whatever reason — and that they just might be right about that.

  • People who would trade freedom for safety deserve neither. – paraphrased Benjamin Franklin quote, still true to this day.

  • Given the fact that the Second Amendment was only recently acknowledged by the Supreme Court as providing any real restraint on government power, I’d say it’s not hyperbole to believe that the right to keep and bear arms is insecure. The courts have been very poor at protecting this right.

    As for whether “failing to register” is markedly different from simply “owning” a gun, I disagree. If you introduce a new registration requirement without any notice requirement or requirement of specific intent, you will ultimately have any number of cases where people are effectively being punished simply for owning a covered firearm. Making this scenario a felony offense is very disturbing to me.

    • Terrence O’Brien

      Nothing like a Supreme Court decision in your favor to ruin your case, eh? I think the biggest threat to our Second Amendment rights is the continued proliferation and abuse of weapons that could conceivably lead to some constitutional amendment, but that seems unlikely. That process might be accelerated by gun nuts addressing every issue related to guns in terms of the Constitution. As for your scenario, I am glad you recognize it as your scenario. I’m not planning to introduce such a new registration requirement without any notice requirement, andI don’t think anyone is. If such legislation were introduced, I’m sure it would be heavily debated in any event.

      • There is some genuine risk of pushing too far too fast for the gun lobby, I’ll agree, but at the same time I’m not about to gainsay the effectiveness of a strategy that has achieved so much success. Over the past 50 years, we’ve gone from a country very comfortable with major gun restrictions to a country that is highly skeptical of them.

  • thacky,

    It’s not a matter of semantics; this is an ill-defined category that is not tailored to the actual danger posed by the targeted weapons. I don’t give a flip whether a gun was designed to kill people or mow down trees in comical fashion — what I care about, and where the only government interest lies, is how objectively dangerous the firearm is. Targeting characteristics that go more to styling than firepower is useless. Assault weapons bans are akin to banning sporty-looking cars with weak four-cylinder engines in an attempt to crack down on speeding; they make no sense and serve no legitimate purpose.

    This isn’t a matter of “splitting hairs” either. In fact, it’s these bans that split hairs because the difference between covered and non-covered firearms is always fairly thin, i.e., the difference between having a pistol grip or not, or having a folding stock, or not.

    And as for the Second Amendment, should the government be able to put you in jail for expressing your opinion in this forum? The founders probably didn’t anticipate the internet and rapid, unrestrained public communication. Thankfully, we don’t assume that the Bill of Rights can be rendered obsolete by developments in technology. In fact, the founders themselves saw these developments for themselves — the double-barreled shotgun came into use around the mid-1700’s, allowing the user to rapidly fire two shotgun blasts without reloading. Pepper-box revolvers allowed faster handgun shots, although the barrel had to be advanced manually. I simply don’t believe that the founders never anticipated the idea of more advanced firearms.

    And as far as the rest of the world: #1: I don’t believe they think that; and, #2: Even if they did think we were gun nuts, an appeal to popularity is a textbook logical fallacy and proves nothing. You might as well be telling me “all the cool kids are doing it.”

  • disqus_B95crCttrn

    Excellent article, a note on the argument you make about magazines and the ability to change them quickly. For “Assault rifles” CA currently has a “fixed” (non-removable) magazine law which means the rifle owner must reload the rifle one magazine at a time. U.S. Senator Feinstein is from CA, after all. Her current US legislation that she said she has an “opportunity” to enact, even bans the Ruger 1022 (a .22), another political technique of demanding a lot and comprising for a big gain. This will be a well orchestrated attack. I would of like to have read a little more of a call for support of the 2nd amendment, but I greatly appreciate the information about the local politicians that are on the other side.

    • With stripper clips there’s little utility to banning a gun simply because it accepts a detachacble magazine. At best California’s ban slows down reloading slightly. And lest we forget, spree killers aren’t going to mind lugging around additional magazines, but individuals will. Just look at police who often carry around Glocks with 15 round clips (clips that would be banned under many of these proposed bans).

      I do support the Second Amendment, but didn’t have space to get into it too greatly here. Suffice to say, though, that it is now a recognized individual right and will be impossible for any level of government to simply ignore.

  • JLD

    an assault weapon is one that is used in an assault.
    There is no look, or function, or manufacturer that can be used to define one. It is the use to which it is put that defines it.

  • disqus_fu9vmrCPnp

    Great article Owen.
    One thing which has always struck me is that the biggest proponents of Gun Control have never fired a gun. In fact, they fear guns. They have no knowledge of guns.
    It is like having people who have never driven a car decide upon our traffic laws.