Does Feinstein's 'Assault Weapon' Ban Cover All Semiautomatic Rifles?


Gun writer Alan Korwin, who blogs here, argues (in an email missive that does not seem to be online yet) that the "assault weapon" ban introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) last week effectively bans all semiautomatic rifles, not just the scary-looking, military-style ones. How so? Under her bill, a rifle that accepts a detachable magazine qualifies as an "assault weapon" if it has one or more of six features, including "a pistol grip." The bill defines a "pistol grip" as "a grip, a thumbhole stock, or any other characteristic that can function as a grip" (emphasis added). Therefore, Korwin says, "any semi-automatic firearm that exists, with anything on it you can grip, is banned."

Sound far-fetched? In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee today, Independence Institute scholar (and Reason contributor) David Kopel noted:

The Feinstein bills outlaw any long gun that has a grip, or anything which can function as a grip. Of course, all guns have grips—or they couldn't be held in the hand to fire at all. While this means that some bills would presumptively ban nearly all semi-autos, the likely intent is to ban pistol-style grips.

If Feinstein's bill were enacted, of course, the courts might very well favor the statute's literal meaning over its "likely intent." In any case, Kopel seems to think this highly elastic definition of "pistol grip" was accidental, while Korwin calls it "very clever," because it means the bill covers a lot more guns than you might think at first glance. As I noted a few weeks ago, the National Rifle Association raised the same concern about the "pistol grip" definition based on an earlier version of Feinstein's bill, so this is a problem she could have fixed, assuming she viewed it as a problem. 

If you accept Korwin's theory that ignorance, stupidity, or carelessness do not account for this aspect of Feinstein's bill, Appendix A, which lists more than 2,000 guns that are not covered by the ban, begins to make more sense. The list includes, for example, the fixed-stock Iver Johnson M-1 Carbine, which I happen to own (along with several of the "large capacity ammunition feeding devices" targeted by another provision of the bill). By Feinstein's reckoning, the exact same gun with an adjustable stock would be an "assault weapon," and therefore intolerably dangerous, although it is hard to see why. In any event, since my gun does not appear on Feinstein's list of 157 "assault weapons" banned by name and does not have anything that would ordinarily be described as a pistol grip or any of the other forbidden features*, there is no apparent reason to mention it at all, except to impress us with Feinstein's generosity. But if any "characteristic that can function as a grip" makes a gun an "assault weapon," my rifle (or new versions of it, since currently owned guns are grandfathered) would be banned had it not been included on the list of exempted firearms.

Kopel's testimony, by the way, is an excellent summary of the case against "assault weapon" bans and limits on magazine capacity that every member of Congress and every state legislator should be forced to read before voting on either.

*Correction: Actually, since Feinstein's forbidden features include a barrel shroud, my gun would have been deemed an "assault weapon" regardless of the "pistol grip" definition, had it not been listed in Appendix A. Why a barrel shroud is acceptable on this particular rifle but not on others is anyone's guess.