The New York Times reports that what Gov. Andrew Cuomo yesterday described as "the toughest assault weapons ban in the country" would copy California's definition of forbidden firearms. In addition to a list of specific models, California's law covers guns that meet certain criteria. Any one of these six features, for example, makes a rifle with a detachable magazine illegal in California (unless it was legally owned prior to June 1, 1989, in which case it has to be registered): 1) a flash suppressor, 2) a grenade launcher or flare launcher, 3) a thumbhole stock, 4) a folding or telescoping stock, 5) a forward pistol grip, or 6) a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon. If you are wondering why a mass murderer needs any of these features to kill schoolchildren or moviegoers, you have already put more thought into this issue than the average legislator.
Federal legislation sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)—which has not materialized yet, although she said she would introduce it on the first day of the current congressional session (i.e., last Thursday)—apparently takes a similar approach. According to her office's summary, Feinstein's bill will ban "the sale, transfer, importation, or manufacturing" of "120 specifically named firearms," along with "certain other semiautomatic rifles, handguns, [and] shotguns that can accept a detachable magazine and have one or more military characteristics." Under the federal "assault weapon" ban that expired in 2004 (which also was sponsored by Feinstein), those "military characteristics" for rifles were 1) a bayonet mount, 2) a grenade launcher, 3) a folding or telescoping stock, 4) a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon, or 5) a flash suppressor or threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor. Feinstein wants to eliminate "the easy-to-remove bayonet mounts and flash suppressors from the characteristics test" and add "thumbhole stocks" while reducing the number of permissible characteristics from one to zero. Her bill also would apply to guns with "bullet buttons," which require the insertion of a bullet to remove the magazine so that the magazine does not technically qualify as detachable under existing laws.
According to a National Rifle Association analysis posted last month, Feinstein's list of forbidden features includes not only a pistol grip that "protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon," but "any other characteristic that can function as a grip," including a "forward grip," defined as "a grip located forward of the trigger that functions as a pistol grip." The NRA says that language has potentially sweeping implications:
Read literally and in conjunction with the reduction from two features to one, the new language would apply to every detachable-magazine semi-automatic rifle. At a minimum, it would, for example, ban all models of the AR-15, even those developed for compliance with California's highly restrictive ban.
The NRA says Feinstein's bill mentions rocket launchers as well as grenade launchers. "Such devices," the NRA notes, "are restricted under the National Firearms Act and, obviously, are not standard components of the firearms Feinstein wants to ban. Perhaps a subsequent Feinstein bill will add 'nuclear bomb,' 'particle beam weapon,' or something else equally far-fetched to the features list."
The delay in unveiling the bill suggests Feinstein is still tinkering with it, perhaps to address issues such as these. Like the California law, Feinstein's bill would let people keep guns newly defined as "assault weapons." Her office says this grandfather provision "protects legitimate hunters and the rights of existing gun owners"—a puzzling claim, since we have been assured over and over again that "assault weapons" have no legitimate purpose, even though rifles described as "assault weapons" are very popular yet rarely used in crimes.
While it looks like Cuomo's "toughest assault weapons ban in the country" is actually no tougher than California's and may be less restrictive than what Feinstein ultimately proposes, he does have an idea that would put New York on the cutting edge of arbitrary gun rules. Under current New York law (and under Feinstein's bill), magazines are limited to 10 rounds. Cuomo says the limit should be seven instead. Why? Because seven is less than 10. Duh. Or as Cuomo put it yesterday, "No one needs 10 bullets to kill a deer." And that, after all, is what the Second Amendment is all about: killing deer.
The Times says the bill Cuomo wants "would also close a loophole that has thwarted enforcement of limits on the size of magazines." That loophole, as Cuomo's office explains, is the exclusion of "large capacity" magazines made prior to 1994. Something like 30 million of those are in circulation, and Cuomo complains that they are indistinguishable from all the millions of magazines made after that date. Reducing the limit from 10 rounds to seven multiplies the number of pre-existing "large capacity" magazines by including all the 10-round magazines made before the new rule takes effect. Confiscating whatever fraction of those newly illegal magazines are currently in New York or end up there is a big project, to put it mildly, and criminals probably won't be turning them in voluntarily. As usual with gun control, the burden of this restriction will be borne almost entirely by law-abiding people. That reality should give pause to anyone who takes lawmaking seriously, instead of treating it as an exercise in emotionally driven symbolism.