Can We Talk About Assault Weapons?

We all know that some guns should be banned or severely restricted. Machine guns, sawed-off shotguns, silencers, grenades, and many other types of extremely dangerous weapons were essentially banned by the commonsense National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934, a law that was, obviously, upheld by the United States Supreme Court.

Recently, mass murderers in San Bernardino, Calif., killed 14 and wounded 21 with AR-15 assault rifles, which are versions of the U.S. military’s M-16 infantry weapon. It is the same gun that was used to slaughter 20 children and six faculty members at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

The question today is whether these modern assault weapons should be banned or severely restricted, just as other firearms have been restricted for the past 80 years. Let us compare how dangerous the AR-15 is compared to the guns banned by the National Firearms Act.

The 1939 Supreme Court ruling that upheld the National Firearms Act, United States v. Miller, focused on whether the Second Amendment allowed a particular gun to be banned. In that case, it was a sawed-off shotgun, meaning where the barrel is less than 18 inches long. The gun at issue was a double-barreled 12-gauge Stevens shotgun that fired two shells and then the user had to hinge it open, remove the shell casings, manually insert new shells, and reclose the gun. So it was among the slowest guns to fire multiple rounds. And yet, the Court considered it entirely reasonable and constitutional for Congress to decide that it was too dangerous for sale to the public.

The NFA also targeted machine guns, but it wasn’t modern machine guns that persuaded Congress to impose strict control; it was the Tommy Gun in the hands of gangsters. The Thompson fires a .45 caliber pistol cartridge which is not very powerful compared to modern military ammunition. An AR-15 firing the military’s standard 5.56 NATO round has a muzzle velocity more than three times faster than the Thompson and shoots accurately (has an effective firing range) about ten times farther than the Thompson. In short, an AR-15 or similar semiautomatic versions of modern military rifles are far more dangerous than the fully automatic Tommy Gun, which virtually everyone (including the Supreme Court) agrees is properly banned.

What makes today’s assault weapons far more dangerous is that each incorporates the features of a modern military rifle or submachine gun, enabling the shooter to fire numerous bullets very rapidly, and yet keep control of the gun. For example, because it’s a version of the M-16, the AR-15 is designed with a pistol grip so it can be fired rapidly from the shoulder or hip; it is designed with a barrel shroud so the non-trigger hand can keep the gun stable during rapid fire; it is designed to accept very large capacity magazines so there is little pause to reload.

The parts or features of an assault weapon are not there to look scary (as the NRA suggests); they are there to make it possible for the shooter to do scary things. With these features, any deranged person can empty a 30-round magazine as fast as he or she can pull the trigger (five to 15 seconds), while maintaining control of the gun.

Put another way, assault rifles are just as dangerous as a modern military rifle because they are the same gun but fixed in semiautomatic mode. For example, there are two models of the standard military M-16. One has a switch that allows the rifle to be fired in full-auto (bullets stream out as you hold down the trigger) or in semiautomatic mode (one shot for each pull of the trigger). The other has a switch that allows the M-16 to be fired in a three-shot burst or in semiautomatic mode. The AR-15 is virtually identical to an M-16 fixed in semiautomatic mode.

The U.S. Army trains its soldiers that “the most important firing technique during fast-moving, modern combat is rapid semiautomatic fire.” Or as a veteran battlefield reporter explained:

[D]oes the infantry need full auto when most battle-seasoned veterans – including special operators – agree that semi-auto fire is highly effective for suppressing the enemy?… Back in the mid-1980s – before the shift to the M16A2 and the three-round burst – active-duty infantry units kept to a strict rule that rifleman only fired their M16A1s on semi auto. Today’s combat-experienced infantrymen are even more disciplined.

When soldiers fire M-16s in semi-auto, it is exactly the same as if they were firing AR-15s. Would there be a rifle more dangerous than the one our infantry uses in combat? No.

Nobody is arguing that the United States would solve its crisis of gun violence simply by banning assault weapons. But why would any civilized nation allow them to be sold, as we do, to anyone? (Surely you know that no other Western nation does.) The Supreme Court just rejected an appeal from a federal appellate ruling that an assault weapons ban does not violate the Second Amendment. So there’s no constitutional reason for inaction. The reason is the perceived power of the pro-gun movement and a lack of political courage from everyone else.


Bernie Horn is Senior Advisor at the Public Leadership Institute.

 

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