The Biden administration says H.R. 7910, a bill imposing new age restrictions on sales by federally licensed gun dealers, "would ensure that individuals under 21 years of age cannot purchase weapons of war." But H.R. 7910, dubbed the Protecting Our Kids Act, sweeps much more broadly than the phrase "weapons of war" suggests, covering all semi-automatic centerfire rifles that accept detachable magazines.
President Joe Biden and other politicians who support a federal ban on "assault weapons" often call those arbitrarily defined firearms "weapons of war." But this bill applies to many guns that do not fit the legislative definition of "assault weapons," which hinges on military-style feature such as folding stocks, pistol grips, and barrel shrouds. That ambiguity suggests Biden is not sure which guns he wants to ban or why, and it illustrates the challenge of deciding which firearms are too dangerous to be tolerated.
"We need to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines," Biden said last week. "And if we can't ban assault weapons, then we should raise the age to purchase them from 18 to 21." H.R. 7910 aims to achieve the latter result, but its scope is much wider than Biden suggested.
The distinctions drawn by H.R. 7910 actually make more sense than the distinctions drawn by H.R. 1808, the proposed federal "assault weapon" ban. While the latter bill focuses on functionally unimportant characteristics, H.R. 7910 focuses on the type of ammunition (centerfire vs. rimfire) and the ability to use detachable magazines, both of which have practical implications. But those differences cut both ways: The same characteristics that might make the rifles covered by the bill more effective in a mass shooting can also make them more suitable for self-defense or other legal uses.
California recently imposed age restrictions similar to those that Biden wants Congress to approve. Unlike H.R. 7910, which applies only to sales by federally licensed dealers, California's law applied to all sales. But it targeted the same age group and the same broad category of rifles. It did not deal with "assault weapons," which California has long prohibited.
Last month the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit concluded that California's law imposed an unjustified burden on the Second Amendment rights of young adults. Since California had already prohibited 18-to-20-year-olds from buying handguns, the 9th Circuit said, the new rule left them with few viable options for home defense.
"Non-semiautomatic rifles are not effective as self-defense weapons because they must be manually cycled between shots, a process which becomes infinitely more difficult in a life or death situation," the Court said. "Rimfire rifles generally aren't good for self-defense either, because rimfire ammunition has 'poor stopping power' and [is] mostly used for things like hunting small game. So for self-defense in the home, young adults are left with shotguns."
The 9th Circuit noted that the shotgun option—the one that Biden thinks should be adequate for everyone, not just young adults—has significant drawbacks. "Even acknowledging that shotguns are effective weapons for self-defense in the home, shotguns are outmatched by semiautomatic rifles in some situations," the appeals court said. "Semiautomatic rifles are able to defeat modern body armor, have a much longer range than shotguns and are more effective in protecting roaming kids on large homesteads, are much more precise and capable at preventing collateral damage, and are typically easier for small young adults to use and handle."
In light of these considerations, the 9th Circuit said, "California's ban is a severe burden on the core Second Amendment right of self-defense in the home." The same analysis presumably would apply to H.R. 7910, notwithstanding its exception for private sales.
What about the Biden administration's claim that the bill targets "weapons of war"? Vice President Kamala Harris used the same phrase when she touted a federal "assault weapon" ban after the May 14 massacre in Buffalo.
"You know what an assault weapon is?" Harris said. "You know how an assault weapon was designed? It was designed for a specific purpose: to kill a lot of human beings quickly….An assault weapon is a weapon of war with no place, no place in a civil society." Contrary to that claim, "assault weapon" bans exempt guns that are just as deadly as the guns they prohibit, as Biden himself has conceded. But if semi-automatic centerfire rifles that accept detachable magazines are "weapons of war," as the Biden administration now says they are, it follows that they likewise have "no place in a civil society."
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul pulled a similar bait-and-switch when she pushed new gun control laws after the attacks in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas. New York, like California, already had an "assault weapon" ban, but Hochul thought it did not go far enough. "How does an 18-year-old purchase an AR-15 in the State of New York [or the] State of Texas?" she asked in May. "That person's not old enough to buy a legal drink. I want to work with the legislature to change that. I want it to be 21. I think that's just common sense."
Hochul seemed to be proposing new age restrictions on sales of the "featureless" AR-15-style rifles that remain legal in New York, even though they fire the same ammunition at the same rate with the same muzzle velocity as the prohibited models. But A10503, the bill she signed into law this month, is even broader than California's law or H.R. 7910, covering all semi-automatic rifles.
While these laws do not affect sales to adults 21 or older, Hochul's equation of semi-automatic rifles with AR-15s, like the Biden administration's description of the rifles covered by H.R. 7910 as "weapons of war," reflects a broader tendency to expand the definition of firearms that are supposedly intolerable because they are especially suitable for mass murder. Advocates of a federal "assault weapon" ban commonly conflate that relatively narrow category with "semiautomatic rifles" or "semiautomatic firearms" in general.
Such confusion is inevitable when politicians vainly try to distinguish between "good" guns that Americans have a right to possess under the Second Amendment and "bad" guns that have no legitimate uses. It turns out that supposedly good guns can be used for evil purposes.
Handguns, which the Supreme Court has described as "the quintessential self-defense weapon," are also overwhelmingly preferred by violent criminals (including mass murderers). By contrast, "assault weapons," which include some of the most popular rifles sold in the United States, are rarely used in homicides. Even shotguns, which Biden sees as the best weapon for home defense, are used by criminals about as often as rifles, only a subset of which would qualify as "assault weapons." Since firearms are tools with no inherent moral properties, the attempt to identify guns that have "no place in a civil society" inevitably produces laws that are illogical, flagrantly unconstitutional, or both.