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Free Minds & Free Markets

'Assault Weapons,' Explained: New at Reason

How a scary name for an arbitrary group of firearms distorts the gun control debate

Zach Gibson/GettyZach Gibson/GettyAlthough "assault weapons" fire no faster than any other semi-automatic, politicians routinely conflate them with machine guns, which have not been legally produced for civilians in the United States since 1986. Prohibitionists like Sen. Diane Feinstein (D–Calif.) argue that "assault weapons" are good for nothing but mass shootings and gang warfare, despite the fact that only a tiny percentage of these guns are ever used to commit crimes. They say these firearms are "weapons of choice" for mass shooters, who are in fact much more likely to use handguns, and claim they are uniquely deadly, even though the category is defined based on features that make little or no difference in the hands of a murderer.

Josh Sugarmann, founder and executive director of the Violence Policy Center, laid out this strategy of misdirection and obfuscation in a 1988 report on "Assault Weapons and Accessories in America." Sugarmann observed that "the weapons' menacing looks, coupled with the public's confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun—can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons."

Sugarmann added that because "few people can envision a practical use for these guns," the public should be more inclined to support a ban on "assault weapons" than a ban on handguns, which are by far the most common kind of firearm used to commit crimes but also the most popular choice for self-defense. As Jacob Sullum shows in the latest edition of Reason, this strategy has been pretty effective.

Photo Credit: Zach Gibson/Getty

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