Gun Control

Insanely Broad Definition of 'Assault Weapon' Moves From Illinois Village to Oregon Ballot Initiative

Peashooter prohibitions are on the rise.


Karin Hildebrand Lau/

The insanely broad "assault weapons" definition used by the small town of Deerfield, Illinois, to prohibit common peashooters has now migrated to the entire state of Oregon.

This week activists in support of Initiative 43 received a draft ballot title from the state's attorney general, which describes the initiative as criminalizing the "possession or transfer of 'assault weapons' (defined) or 'large capacity magazines' (defined), with exceptions."

As the parentheticals suggest, there is a lot in a name.

This proposed ban—which is being pushed by an interfaith coalition of Portland-area clergymen—gives a couple definitions for assault weapons.

The first is the fairly typical definition of any weapon that can accept a detachable magazine and has one of several additional features, including a folding stock, pistol grip, or muzzle brake.

The second definition, however, bans any "any semiautomatic, centerfire or rimfire rifle with a fixed magazine, that has the capacity to accept more than 10 rounds of ammunition." This sweeping language catches up not just scary looking AR-15's, but also encompasses common target shooting rifles that are particularly ill-suited to the commission of any gun crimes.

For instance, it includes rifles like the Marlin Model 60, a semi-automatic .22 rifle that has been available since the 1960s, and which promotional materials describe as the "most popular .22 in the world" with millions sold. Modern versions of the Model 60 can hold 14 rounds in a tubular fixed magazine.

Whether the backers of this assault weapons ban initiative are intentionally trying to prohibit weapons like the Marlin Model 60 is kind of fuzzy.

Oregon's Initiative 43 specifically exempts ".22 caliber tube ammunition feeding devices" from being considered as prohibited "large capacity magazines."

That would seem to be an attempt to exempt rifles like the Marlin Model 60 from the ban. Yet that exemption appears only in the section devoted to "large capacity magazines." It does not modify the section containing the blanket definition of "assault weapon" as any semiautomatic rifle with a fixed magazine with a capacity of over 10 rounds. In other words, when read in its entirely, the law's text defines the Marlin Model 60 as a prohibited assault weapon.

By contrast, a federal assault weapons ban currently being pushed by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) makes sure to exempt guns like the Marlin Model 60 with its definition of assault weapon as "a semiautomatic rifle that has a fixed magazine with the capacity to accept more than 10 rounds, except for an attached tubular device designed to accept, and capable of operating only with, .22 caliber rimfire ammunition."

This makes Oregon's Initiative 43 similar to the sloppily drafted Deerfield, Illinois, assault weapons ban which included both catch-all and carve-out provisions.

That such contradictory language would pop up in two separate pieces of legislation is a natural consequence of a gun control movement looking to quickly capitalize on the political momentum created by mass shootings to just "do something."

That sense of urgency can certainly be found in the comments of Mark Knutson, a Lutheran minister and one of the chief petitioners for Oregon assault weapons initiative. "Young people in this country are crying out. This is the moment in time where we need to step alongside them as adults and do our part with them," Knutson told the Associated Press in March, while comparing his effort to ban target shooting rifles to the civil rights movement.

The public has until May 8th to comment on the draft ballot title, at which point it becomes official. The campaign would then have until July 6 to collect the 88,000 needed signatures to qualify for the November ballot.

If passed, the initiative would give gunowners 120 days to rid themselves of their assault weapons, after which they would be guilty of a Class B Felony and subject to up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines.