The "assault weapon" ban that was unanimously approved by the Boulder City Council this week is a model of simplicity compared to other legislative offerings of this genre. The federal ban proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), for example, lists six forbidden rifle features, "157 dangerous military-style assault weapons," and "2,258 legitimate hunting and sporting rifles." Boulder's ordinance does away with the bewildering gun catalogs and focuses on three rifle features:
1. a pistol grip or thumbhole stock
2. a folding or telescoping stock
3. any protruding grip or other device to allow the weapon to be stabilized with the non-trigger hand
The ban covers semi-automatic rifles that accept detachable magazines and have one or more of those features. Anyone who already possesses a newly prohibited firearm has until the end of the year to register it, surrender it, destroy it, or move it outside the city limits.
The rationale for banning folding or telescoping stocks is, as usual, rather mysterious. But the city council argues that the other targeted features "allow for greater control of the weapon," so that it can be "kept pointed at a target while being fired." The city official explanation of the ordinance says the guns it covers have "military features" that "allow rapid spray firing for the quick and efficient killing of humans." It adds that "a rifle fired from the shoulder recoils and must be brought down and onto a target before another round can be fired." The law's authors seem to be imagining a situation in which a mass shooter is "'spray firing' from the hip," as a New York judge described it in a 2013 decision upholding that state's "assault weapon" ban.
UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh took a skeptical view of that scenario in a widely read 2014 post. "There's a reason that the expression 'shoot from the hip' tends to refer to actions that are less effective because they are less deliberate," he noted. "Because you're not actually sighting down the barrel of the gun, you're going to be extremely inaccurate…And while such lack of accuracy may matter less if you're shooting a fully automatic (not that I recommend shooting this way even with a fully automatic), it will make your shooting much less effective if you're shooting a semi-automatic. People 'spray firing' a semi-automatic from the hip are thus making themselves less dangerous to the people they're shooting at (compared to normal firing when one is actually sighting down the barrel). Nor are they making it easier to fire a lot of rounds quickly; one can fire just as quickly in the normal shooting position as when firing from the hip."
The Boulder City Council acknowledges the importance of accuracy when it argues that semi-automatic rifles can be just as lethal as machine guns. "The automatic firing mechanism does not present a significant increase in the lethality of the M-16 when compared to the AR-15," it says. "The military trains its personnel to use repeated single shots, which are more accurate. Military training is for personnel to shoot at 12 to 15 rounds per minute or one round every four to five seconds."
By comparison, "a New York Times analysis of the Parkland, Florida, shooting estimated that Nikolas Cruz fired as quickly as one and a half rounds per second." The implication—that Cruz could have killed more people if he had fired more slowly and carefully—seems somewhat at odds with the notion that "rapid spray firing" from the hip is the way to go if you want to maximize casualties. The city council also overlooks the importance of accuracy in explaining the need to ban bump stocks and other "multi-burst trigger activators," which are notoriously inaccurate and unreliable. Bump stocks are an intolerable threat to public safety, the city council says, because they "increase a weapon's rate of fire."
In short, Boulder's legislators argue that accuracy is more important than speed when comparing semi-automatic rifles to machine guns but speed is more important than accuracy when deciding whether to fire from the hip or the shoulder and when deciding whether to use an accessory that makes your rifle fire more like a machine gun. Those positions are convenient for people determined to justify this ordinance, but they do not seem logically consistent.
"'Spray fire' is a phrase used only by gun control advocates to scare people who do not know better," says Michael Bazinet, director of public affairs at the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade group. "You do not need 'a protruding grip or other device to allow the weapon to be stabilized with the non-trigger hand' to keep a semiautomatic rifle on target. That is a patently ridiculous statement."
Laws like this one are always more about scapegoating and virtue signaling than protecting public safety. The gesture in this case is especially empty, not only because the ordinance does not extend beyond Boulder's borders but because it probably will never take effect. Under Colorado law, "A local government may not enact an ordinance, regulation, or other law that prohibits the sale, purchase, or possession of a firearm that a person may lawfully sell, purchase, or possess under state or federal law."
On Wednesday the Mountain States Legal Foundation filed a federal lawsuit challenging the ordinance on behalf of several gun-owning Boulder residents. "This ban is tantamount to Boulder attempting to stop drunk driving by banning Subarus," said Cody Wisniewski, the attorney representing the plaintiffs. "It accomplishes nothing other than making criminals of law-abiding citizens." The lawsuit argues that the gun law, which also bans magazines that hold more than 10 rounds and raises the minimum age for possessing a firearm to 21, violates the Colorado and U.S. constitutions as well as state law.