Gun Control

Washington's 'Assault Weapons' Ban Will Be as Impotent as Most Gun Laws

Once again, firearm-averse legislators chase after a restriction-averse public.


It doesn't bode well for a law when you immediately notice the measure's impotence against people who will inevitably evade or ignore its dictates. The law's contempt for constitutional protections doesn't improve its prospects. Of course, lots of what legislatures pinch out these days is stupid and unconstitutional, so let's be clear that we're discussing Washington state's new "assault weapons" ban, a rearguard action in an already failed effort to deny self-defense rights to Americans.

Gov. Jay Inslee boasted this week of signing bills featuring, among other anti-gun measures, a ban on assault weapons. He claimed "assault weapons were created for the military and designed to kill humans quickly and efficiently. Washington law defines assault weapons using both a list of specific firearms — including certain types of rifles and pistols —and a list of specific features that enable mass killing."

They Want to Ban What?

Despite Inslee's dubious history lesson and the huffy insistence of the authors of H.B. 1240 that "the additional features of an assault weapon are not 'merely cosmetic'" the law expends a lot of verbiage on trying to define what it's intended to ban. That's because "assault weapon" is a slippery category.

"This politically defined category of guns — a selection of rifles, shotguns and handguns with 'military-style' features — only figured in about 2 percent of gun crimes nationwide before the [expired 1994 federal] ban," Lois Beckett of The New York Times acknowledged in a 2014 news analysis piece.

This leaves Washington lawmakers, like their restrictive counterparts in other states, with kludgy and verbose descriptions of a supposedly especially-lethal category of firearms.

"In addition to a list of models that includes the AK-47 'in all its forms' and the AR-15 'in all its forms,' H.B. 1240 applies to any 'semiautomatic, center fire rifle that has the capacity to accept a detachable magazine' and any of nine features. The prohibited features include pistol grips, folding or telescoping stocks, flash suppressors, muzzle breaks, barrel shrouds, and threaded barrels," Reason's Jacob Sullum explains.

Like Whac-A-Mole, But With Laws

As lawmakers elsewhere have discovered, if you ban guns by model names and assortments of features, people can comply with the law by changing those names and shaking up the features to sell functionally identical firearms. California banned a long list of rifles by name in 1989. So, manufacturers slapped on new stickers. The state then defined restricted weapons by a list of features including detachable magazines that, when combined, were illegal. That inspired a few tweaks.

"Darrin Price invented and named the so-called 'bullet button' which magically changed your evil assault weapon into a legal centerfire rifle by forcing you to use a tool, such as a bullet or ammunition cartridge, to remove your magazine," Ron LaPedis noted in 2017 for Police1.

So, California banned bullet buttons. This created a new market for legally permissible rifles.

"Lawmakers just propped up demand again, and opened up the market for gun owners to convert their guns and manufacturers to make new guns that easily circumvent the law with a few cosmetic changes," California firearms instructor Dennis Santiago commented after the law changed once more.

California wasn't alone in playing legal Whac-A-Mole with definitions of banned firearms.

"New York's law has actually created a new market for companies like SB Products, that make after-market products for modifying the cosmetics of 'assault weapons,'" I wrote in 2014.

"The laws were basically written by people who don't know anything about guns," a New York gun shop owner observed at the time in a video demonstration of the minor features, like vertical grips and bayonet lugs, that stood between legality and felony.

Enforcement Is the Next Challenge

These laws have the greatest impact on legally acquiring new weapons, which must comply with the law. Once purchased, people unimpressed by lawmakers can modify their firearms in privacy to have any characteristics they please. The infinitely customizable AR-15 especially lends itself to such treatment. And the DIY revolution has eased personal manufacture of firearms by people, whether or not they are interested in abiding by restrictions—I should know, since I've done it. That means laws like Washington's "assault weapons" ban face an uphill climb that approaches vertical.

"There are 400 million unregistered guns in this country, and 20 million of them are AR-15s," RAND Corporation analyst Brynn Tannehill wrote this month for The New Republic. "Any attempt to register this staggering array of weapons, much less take them away, is an impossible task with owners who are largely unwilling to comply."

In 2017 I observed that "gun controls then, like other restrictions and prohibitions, have their biggest effect on those who agree with them and on the unlucky few scofflaws caught by the powers-that-be, and are otherwise mostly honored in the breach. As a result, gun laws intended to reduce the availability of firearms are likely to leave those who most vigorously disagree with them disproportionately well-armed relative to the rest of society." Six years later, after a surge of purchases spurred by social disorder and loss of faith in the state, some shooters from groups not traditionally considered firearms-friendly fear that restrictive laws will leave them, literally, outgunned.

"Some Washington residents told VICE News that they're worried the ban creates a situation where 'traditional' gun owners—white, male conservatives—are sitting on an arsenal of high-powered weapons, which emerging demographics of gun owners, like LGBTQ people, leftists and minorities, no longer have access to," the publication reported last week.

But there's no reason to believe Washington residents will be any less likely to modify the cosmetics of affected firearms or to simply ignore the law, than their counterparts in California, New York, and elsewhere. They may be even more inclined to do so if they feel that they're playing catch-up with people from other backgrounds.

Did We Mention the Constitution?

Then there are the unpromising courtroom prospects for "assault weapons" bans. Maryland's similar law faces an uncertain fate after last year's U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmation of self-defense rights in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen. A lawsuit has already been filed by state residents and advocacy groups against Washington's ban.

"The firearms that Washington bans as 'assault weapons' are, in all respects, ordinary semiautomatic rifles," Second Amendment Foundation Executive Director Adam Kraut noted in announcing a legal challenge to the law. "To the extent they are different from other semiautomatic rifles, their distinguishing features make them safer and easier to use. But even if they are considered as a separate group of 'assault weapons,' they cannot be banned because they are not dangerous and unusual."

Even if the ban stands as a matter of law, it will join its counterparts elsewhere as a challenge to be overcome by innovators, or as a rights violation to be defied by gun enthusiasts. So far, innovators and enthusiasts are the clear winners. Politicians may enjoy passing restrictive and intrusive laws, but they have yet to find any way to make the public comply.