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 UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.