In light of the recent school shooting in Connecticut, many have suggested banning what the media calls “assault weapons.” President Rosenberg has declared he won’t help fund the campaign of any candidate who doesn’t vow support for a ban on “military-style assault weapons.” After all, the Connecticut shooter had a .223 tactical semi-automatic rifle when he walked into a kindergarten classroom and murdered 26 people. While the instinctive response is to ban such guns, the reality of the situation is more complicated. I’ll try to provide some facts to the Macalester community about what these weapons are and aren’t, what they’re used for and how often they’re used in crimes.
It’s easiest to start with what “assault” rifles are not. They are not fully automatic weapons. With a fully automatic gun you simply need to hold down the trigger to fire multiple bullets. These are commonly called “machine guns” and are used by militaries everywhere. Fully automatic weapons, contrary to popular belief, are not illegal to own in most parts of the United States. However, getting one requires an extensive and lengthy background check, approval from a county sheriff and a $200 permit. In addition, no guns may be sold that were made after 1986, meaning the supply of such weapons is low. They are typically very expensive and very rare. I have been around guns since I was in elementary school, but I have never seen one.
Semi-automatic weapons work differently. After a semi-automatic gun is fired, the force from the blast moves the bolt to eject the spent casing and load the next round. This happens in a matter of moments, so the gun is ready to fire again almost immediately. However, the operator still must pull the trigger once for each shot. Semi-automatic rifles are not a new technology; they have been available to civilians in the United States since 1906.
What the media calls “assault” rifles are typically semi-automatics that have a “tactical” look. The classic example of an “assault rifle” is the AR-15. It fires a .223 caliber bullet and is typically very accurate and has less recoil than a higher caliber rifle. Most commonly, AR-15s are collected, used for target shooting, or used to kill non-game animals and pests such as coyotes. I’ve fired one myself—they’re extremely fun to shoot. But I won’t kid anybody: like any gun, the AR-15 is deadly and should never be misused.
The trouble with banning these guns begins when we try to legally define them. In Connecticut, “assault weapons” were illegal at the time of the December school killings. Yet the shooter was able to steal a legally owned AR-15 from his mother. How? Under Connecticut law, the shooter’s rifle wasn’t an “assault rifle.” Assault rifles were defined in Connecticut as any semi-automatic rifle that had a detachable magazine and any two of the following features: a folding stock, a bayonet mount, a flash suppressor or a pistol-style grip. You might be thinking: wait a second, none of these seem to make much of a difference in how deadly the weapon is. And you’d be right —none of these things makes a difference in the amount of force the bullet packs or the weapon’s rate of fire. The banned features are cosmetic in nature.
The Connecticut model is not unique. It was modeled after a federal “assault weapons” ban that was in force from 1994 to 2004. Prior to the ban, violent crime in the US was falling. During the ban, violent crime continued to fall. The ban expired, and it has continued to fall. In fact, since 1992, violent crime in America has fallen by 50 percent. We are the safest we’ve been since the 1960s. Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising, because “assault weapons” account for less than two percent of all guns used in crimes. Rifles in general are used in only three percent of crimes involving firearms. And while horrific mass murders may make the news, they account for less than one percent of all homicides in the US. The evidence suggests “assault weapon” bans do nothing to make America safer.
I am no sensationalist. Banning assault rifles would probably be a minor inconvenience to me as a shooter, not a violation of my fundamental rights. But that’s because I will easily be able to legally acquire a similar weapon that fits outside the legal definition of “assault weapon.” Alternatively, an expanded definition of “assault weapon” could bar me from access to any type of semi-automatic gun—and those are guns millions of law-abiding Americans use for hunting, sport shooting and self-defense. This is the scenario gun owners fear. Why disarm tens of millions of law-abiding citizens when crime rates are falling? The only people left with semi-automatics will be the criminals.
There are things that can and ought to be done in the wake of the Connecticut shooting. Better access to mental health care, expanded background checks on gun buyers and more communication between the two systems could do a lot. But the truth is that politicians and the media have singled out certain guns not because they are commonly used in crimes or because they are fundamentally more dangerous than other guns but because they’re scary-looking.
Anti-gun activists know this, but push such laws anyway because they see them as a starting point from which the entire population may eventually be relieved of most firearms (they’ve admitted this publicly). This kind of deception is part of what drives fears about confiscation among legal gun owners.
Almost all discussions I’ve had about this issue have been constructive. I’d like to learn from and engage all sides of the gun control discussion, and I want people to learn from me, too. So here’s my invitation to President Rosenberg: In the spirit of academic inquiry, come shooting with us at Macalester’s Students for the Safe Exercise of our Right to Bear Arms. You might learn something you didn’t know. And if you’ve written any checks to politicians who promised to ban assault weapons—cancel them. You’ve been sold a defective product.