As I noted in my column this morning, the latest Reason-Rupe Public Opinion Survey found that 44 percent of Americans think people should be "prohibited from owning assault weapons." Other recent surveys have found substantially higher levels of support for banning "assault weapons," and one reason may be the wording of the questions. A Gallup poll conducted around the same time as the Reason-Rupe survey, for instance, asked whether people, if they could, would vote to "reinstate and strengthen the ban on assault weapons that was in place from 1994 to 2004." Sixty percent said yes. A recent ABC News poll asked, "Would you support or oppose a law requiring a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons?" Fifty-eight percent said they would support such a law. Unlike the two latter polls, the Reason-Rupe survey highlighted the impact of an "assault weapon" ban on individual freedom, which may help explain why respondents were less inclined to support it.
Strictly speaking, neither the expired federal law nor the bill Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has proposed bans possession of "assault weapons." Like the 1994 law, Feinstein's bill includes a grandfather clause for current owners, who also are allowed to transfer those guns (subject to an unenforceable background check requirement). But Feinstein's bill effectively prohibits possession of new "assault weapons" by making it illegal to "import, sell, manufacture, transfer, or possess" any that are not lawfully owned when the law takes effect. The grandfather clause is telling because it implicitly acknowledges the uproar that would be provoked by an attempt to confiscate millions of guns, concedes the unfairness of taking away people's property after arbitrarily declaring it contraband, and belies the claim that the guns Feinstein wants to ban have no legitimate purpose. Feinstein says the exemption for current owners "protects the rights of law-abiding citizens who use guns for hunting, household defense or legitimate recreational purposes."
When the ostensible author of both the old "assault weapon" ban and the new version is so hazy on exactly what guns are intolerable and why, it is not surprising that the general public is confused as well, as shown by the definitions of assault weapon offered by respondents in the Reason-Rupe survey. Some pollsters also do not seem to understand what an "assault weapon" is. A recent CNN poll asked people if they supported "a ban on the manufacture, sale and possession of semi-automatic assault guns, such as the AK-47." AK-47s are selective-fire military weapons (a.k.a. "assault rifles") that can fire automatically, and such guns are already tightly restricted under federal law. Similarly, a recent Fox News survey asked respondents if they favored "banning assault rifles and semi-automatic weapons." Assault rifles such as the AK-47 are already illegal for civilian use. Semiautomatic weapons include every gun that fires one round, ejects the the shell casing, and chambers a new round when you pull the trigger—essentially, all firearms except for revolvers and single-shot weapons. So Fox News was asking people whether they favored legislation banning guns that are already banned and banning a very broad category of guns that are commonly used for self-defense, hunting, and sporting purposes. Fifty-four percent said yes, but it is impossible to say what that means.
This persistent confusion, 24 years after California enacted the first "assault weapon" ban, is a product of a deliberately deceptive strategy encouraging people to conflate military-style guns with actual machine guns. That strategy has been so successful that the debate over "assault weapons" is almost literally meaningless, with people supporting a policy they do not understand. The truth is, after all, hard to believe: Why would activists and politicians expend so much effort on legislation that merely expresses their aesthetic objections to guns that look like "weapons of war" but do not function like them? Perhaps they are, as defenders of gun rights fear, trying to prepare the way for more ambitious restrictions in the future after Feinstein's dictates fail to reduce gun violence, as they inevitably will. But looking for rational explanations may give gun controllers like Feinstein too much credit. Like drug control, gun control is best understood as a symbolic exercise.
Survey data suggest that at least some gun control supporters implicitly understand this. In the Reason-Rupe survey, only 27 percent of respondents thought the federal "assault weapon" ban would have helped prevent the Sandy Hook massacre (a demonstrably false belief), but 44 percent said the ban should be reinstated. In a recent CBS News poll, majorities favored stricter gun laws (54 percent), a ban on semiautomatic weapons with detachable magazines (53 percent), a ban on "high-capacity magazines" (63 percent), background checks for all gun buyers (92 percent), and "a national database that would track all gun sales" (78 percent). But only 23 percent said such policies would help "a lot," while almost half said they would help "not much" or "not at all."
Walter Kirn's recent New Republic essay on guns, which J.D. Tuccille ably dissected earlier today, further illustrates the felt need to do something about gun violence, even if you know it is unlikely to work. Kirn concedes that so-called assault weapons "are functionally similar to ordinary semi-automatic rifles, differing chiefly in their sinister cosmetics, not in their underlying ballistics." But he argues that "the gun-owning community" nevertheless should support a ban based on such irrelevant distinctions to "demonstrate precisely the sort of reasonable public-mindedness of which some believe it to be incapable." Surrendering to the ill-informed prejudices of gun banners does not seem reasonable to me. The approach that Kirn recommends—support irrational laws if they have wide support to show you are not a crazy extremist—would validate any policy that makes people feel better, regardless of its actual consequences.