Feinstein's New 'Assault Weapon' Ban: Read It and Sleep


The full text of the new, supposedly improved "assault weapon" ban proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein last week is now available for your perusal. The 122-page bill consists mostly of Appendix A, which takes up 95 pages and lists 2,258 "Firearms Exempted by the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013." As I said on Friday, this list is redundant at best, since any gun that is not specifically named as an "assault weapon" and does not meet the more general definitions is not supposed to be covered by the law, whether or not it is explicitly "exempted." It seems the main point of Appendix A is to impress us with Feinstein's lenience. Look, she specifically allows 14 times as many gun models as she specifically prohibits!

As for the list of 157 guns that are banned by name, it is much longer than the list in the federal "assault weapon" ban that expired in 2004 (which Feinstein also sponsored), and its terms are broader. While the expired ban covered "copies or duplicates" of the 18 named firearms, the new one covers "copies, duplicates, variants, or altered facsimiles"—language that seems designed to keep lawyers busy. The references to "variants" and "altered facsimiles" suggest that a gun can be deemed an "assault weapon" even if it is not listed and does not have any  forbidden "military-style characteristics." Maybe that's one reason Feinstein tries to reassure gun owners with her lengthy list of exempted firearms. 

A story in Friday's New York Times claims Feinstein's bill would "ban certain characteristics of guns that make them more lethal." By describing the bill that way, reporter Jennifer Steinhauer endorses Feinstein's fraudulent premise that "assault weapons" are especially suited to mass murder or other kinds of gun crime. Here are the characteristics that, according to Feinstein, turn a semiautomatic rifle with a detachable magazine into an "assault weapon": a pistol grip or forward grip, a grenade launcher or rocket launcher, a barrel shroud, a threaded barrel, or a folding, telescoping, or detachable stock. How exactly do these features—a threaded barrel, say, or a grenade launcher without (already banned) grenades—make a gun "more lethal"? They don't, which is why opponents of "assault weapon" bans object to such arbitrary, appearance-based distinctions. Some people at the Timesnotably, criminal justice reporter Erica Goode—understand this point. If Steinhauer had read and digested Goode's January 17 front-page story about the contentiousness of the very term assault weapon, she could have avoided the error (assuming that's what it was) of taking sides in an ostensibly evenhanded news story about Feinstein's bill.

New York Times reporters Thomas Kaplan and Danny Hakim made a similar mistake in a January 15 story about New York's new, stricter "assault weapon" ban, saying it would "bar semiautomatic weapons that have a single additional feature to increase their deadliness." Notably, that claim was excised from the online version of the story, which I took to be a sign that at least one editor at the Times recognizes the tendentiousness of such seemingly neutral descriptions. Maybe if there had been a correction at the bottom of the story acknowledging the change Steinhauer would not have repeated Kaplan and Hakim's error.

Steinhauer also claims Feinstein's bill includes "more explicit language on the types of features on banned weapons" than the old ban did. That's not true either. Feinstein fiddled with the list of suspect features (dropping bayonet mounts, for example), and she decided that one, rather than two, was enough to qualify a gun as an "assault weapon." The latter change made the ban broader, but it did not make it more "explicit," let alone "make it far more respectful of firearms for recreation uses," as a former Feinstein aide quoted by Steinhauer asserts.