Would Adam Lanza's Rifle Have Been Covered by the Federal 'Assault Weapon' Ban?


On Sunday Meet the Press host David Gregory asserted that the .223-caliber Bushmaster M4 carbine used by Adam Lanza in his murderous attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School "would have been banned under the [federal] assault weapons ban." Progressive activist Robert Creamer makes the same claim in a Huffington Post piece:

We have allowed the ban on this particular weapon of mass destruction to expire. As a result, a terrorist named Adam Lanza was able to have easy access to the assault weapons he used to kill scores of children in minutes.

The caption on an infographic in today's New York Times is slipperier but leaves the same impression: "This Colt AR-15-type rifle is similar to the one used by Adam Lanza to kill 26 children and adults in a school in Newtown, Conn. It would have been an illegal assault weapon in the United States from 1994 to 2004, but it now can be purchased readily." 

In fact, as I noted yesterday, the rifle Lanza used is not covered by Connecticut's "assault weapon" law or by the federal ban, which used similar criteria. Both laws ban the Colt AR-15 by name, but rifles not on the list of forbidden models are banned only if they have detachable magazines plus at least two of these five features: 1) a folding or telescoping stock, 2) a pistol grip, 3) a bayonet mount, 4) a grenade launcher, and 5) a flash suppressor or threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor. The gun used by Lanza was legal in Connecticut, so it did not meet these criteria, which means it also would have been legal under the federal ban that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) promises to reintroduce next month (a bill President Obama supports).

The New York Times implicitly acknowledges that fact in the fourth sentence of its caption after leaving the opposite impression in the first two (emphasis added): "Under Connecticut law and the national ban that lapsed in 2004, an assault weapon is a semi-automatic rifle with a removable magazine that also has two other military-style features." The rifle pictured in the Times has all five of the listed features, so in that sense it clearly is not "similar to the one used by Adam Lanza." It is similar in the sense that none of those features really matters for a man bent on killing innocent people, but that similarity reveals the folly of trying to distinguish between "good" and "bad" guns.