New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is proposing new gun control legislation, including "one of the country's most restrictive bans on assault weapons," according to The New York Times. The story illustrates once again the confusion created by treating "assault weapons" as an objective category, as opposed to an arbitrary, scary-sounding term that has no meaning outside of the laws that define it.
New York's current "assault weapon" ban, enacted following the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, uses the same criteria as the federal law that expired in 2004. A rifle is deemed to be an "assault weapon," for instance, if it accepts a detachable magazine and has two or more of these five features: 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. The problem, according to the Times, is that "many high-powered rifles now in production are exempt from the ban because, advocacy groups say, manufacturers have altered their products to circumvent the law."
It is not clear what the Times means by "high-powered rifles." The definition of "assault weapon" has nothing to do with caliber, muzzle velocity, firing rate, or the number of rounds that can be fired before reloading (although a separate provision of New York's law bans magazines holding more than 10 rounds if they were made after September 13, 1994, as did the federal law). The reference to "high-powered rifles" suggests that "assault weapons" are distinguished by their killing capacity, which is not true, since their defining characteristics are essentially aesthetic. To muddy matters further, the Times says manufacturers who obey legislators' dictates concerning the appearance of their guns "have altered their products to circumvent the law," which makes no sense at all when you think about it. The law says you can't sell a rifle that accepts a detachable magazine and has two or more of those five suspect features, so manufacturers stopped selling such rifles in New York. That is complying with the law, not circumventing it.
Suppose Cuomo's bill (which I have not seen yet) broadens the definition of "assault weapons" by saying that a detachable magazine plus just one of those five features is enough. If the bill passes and manufacturers respond by offering New York versions of their rifles without bayonet mounts, flash suppressors, etc., will that also mean they are circumventing the law?
This bill is ostensibly a response to last month's massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where the shooter used a Bushmaster rifle that was legal under Connecticut's "assault weapon" ban, which uses the same criteria as New York's current law. Therefore the legislation Cuomo supports presumably will cover that particular model and configuration. But since the features disfavored by these laws have little or no functional significance in the hands of mass murderers, why should that be considered an accomplishment? "Of 769 homicides in New York State in 2011," the Times notes, "only five were committed with rifles of any kind." Even if one or more of those rifles would qualify as an "assault weapon" under Cuomo's new definition, so what? Any "assault weapon" ban that is even arguably consistent with the Second Amendment will leave people like Adam Lanza with plenty of equally deadly alternatives.
Here is how Cuomo explains the need for new gun control laws: "I think what the nation is saying now after Connecticut, what people in New York are saying, is 'do something, please.'" There's no denying this is something.
Update: In his State of the State address this afternoon, Cuomo called upon the state legislature to enact "the toughest assault weapons ban in the country." It's not clear what he means by that. He described the aim as "ending the unnecessary risk of high-capacity assault rifles," which suggests he is really talking about the distinct issue of magazine size. Yet he listed "ban high-capacity magazines" as a separate action item. A press release from his office describes the change he favors this way:
We Must Pass the Toughest Assault Weapons Ban in the Country: New York's ban on assault weapons is so riddled with loopholes and so difficult to understand that it has become virtually unenforceable. While state law bans magazines with a capacity greater than ten rounds of ammunition, the law exempts magazines manufactured prior to 1994. Because magazines are not generally stamped with a serial number or other mark that would identify the date of manufacture, it is virtually impossible to determine whether a large capacity magazine was manufactured prior to 1994. In order to fix this problem, the Governor proposed tightening our assault weapons ban and eliminating large capacity magazines regardless of date of manufacture.
I gather from this that Cuomo wants to confiscate all the millions of pre-existing magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. Good luck with that. But note that there is nothing here about changing the definition of an "assault weapon" so that gun makers can no longer "circumvent" it.
Update II: Cuomo reportedly wants to copy California's definition of "assault weapon."