What the Hell Is an 'Assault Weapon'?


Making the case for a new and improved "assault weapon" ban, the White House predictably complains that "manufacturers were able to circumvent the [1994] prohibition with cosmetic modifications to their weapons." As I have said before, what President Obama describes as circumvention was actually compliance, because the definition of "assault weapon" hinged on those "cosmetic" features. In other words, the law targeted guns based on features, such as bayonet mounts and threaded barrels, with little or no practical utility in the hands of mass murderers (or ordinary criminals). The same is true of New York's brand-new "assault weapon" ban, which benefited from more than two decades of experience with "circumvention" (starting with California's 1989 law), and it will be true of whatever new definition Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) proposes. The underlying problem is that there is no essential, objectively identifiable "assaultness" that makes these arbitrarily chosen weapons especially threatening. They are not even the weapons of choice for mass shooters, who prefer ordinary handguns.

One therefore wonders what Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and a self-described libertarian, was thinking when he wrote this in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed piece:

Renewing a ban on assault rifles could result in a net gain in that many mass murderers have relied on such weapons. Yes, they could still use other sorts of guns. And yes, law-abiding gun owners will howl. But we don't find it too great an imposition on liberty to ban private ownership of military grade weapons. Why not add semiautomatic assault weapons to the list?

Maybe because, unlike machine guns carried by soldiers, "assault weapons" are no more dangerous than the guns that fail to qualify for that label because they lack a functionally insignificant feature. Constitutional (and libertarian) issues aside, this distinction is objectionable because it is based on a fraud.

Tom Diaz, author of The Last Gun: How Changes in the Gun Industry Are Killing Americans and What It Will Take to Stop It, agrees. Sort of. Here is what he says about banning "assault weapons" in a recent blog post:

It is well understood that the 1994 law was a failure in large part because its definition of what constituted an assault weapon was a fanciful agglomeration of "bells and whistles," most of which had absolutely nothing to do with what makes assault weapons so dangerous. An effective law will focus on one prime feature—the ability to accept a high-capacity magazine.

Now we are getting somewhere. A gun that can accept a "high-capacity magazine" (i.e., a magazine that holds more than 10 rounds) is functionally different from a gun that cannot. But if every firearm fitting that description were banned, many commonly used guns would be illegal, including popular pistols made by Glock, Sig Sauer, Smith & Wesson, Ruger, and Walther. So would various hunting and target rifles that accept detachable magazines but are not currently considered "assault weapons." Revolvers would still be legal, as would shotguns, single-shot weapons such as bolt-action rifles, and semiautomatic firearms that have to be reloaded after firing 10 (or fewer) rounds. This would be a big change to the gun market, though not terribly effective without mass confiscation, given all the millions of noncompliant weapons already in circulation.

But if this is what gun controllers really want, they have a funny way of saying it. Why would they talk about "assault weapons" at all if what they have in mind is a ban on every gun capable of firing more than 10 rounds without reloading? Maybe because they thought they could back their way into a broad gun ban by pushing a half-assed, nonsensical law that was bound to fail.