Assault Weapon Bans Are All About Appearance

Sen. Dianne Feinstein's latest bill classifies firearms not by what they do but based on how they look.

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A string of high-profile mass shootings over the past few years has spawned a movement to outlaw so-called assault weapons, in particular the popular AR-15.

On January 9, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D–Calif.) introduced a federal bill to ban assault weapons—legislation that's been depicted as life-saving, common sense policy. But its definition of an assault weapon is totally arbitrary.

Proposals like Feinstein's latest draft bill leave shooters with plenty of equally deadly alternatives.

"An assault weapon is whatever is covered by an assault weapon ban," says Reason Senior Editor Jacob Sullum, author of a feature story on the topic in our June 2018 issue. "The criteria that are used to identify assault weapons are things that have little or nothing to do with how useful or how deadly an assault weapon is in the hands of a mass murderer."

The federal government banned assault weapons in 1994, when President Bill Clinton signed a bill also sponsored by Sen. Feinstein. That legislation expired 10 years later. Meanwhile, seven states and the District of Columbia have enacted their own assault weapon bans.

There's little evidence that the 1994 legislation reduced gun deaths, in part because it was mostly a symbolic gesture.

"Unless you really delve into the specifics of what these bills do, you don't understand how utterly arbitrary they are," says Sullum.

In both the original 1994 bill and the new version of the legislation, assault weapons are classified not by what they do but by how they look.

Assault weapon bans typically use criteria like pistol grips, adjustable stocks, threaded barrels, and barrels shrouds to determine whether or not a gun is an assault weapon. These features are cosmetic.

"You can have a gun with any one of those features and it is now an assault weapon," says Sullum. "Exactly the same gun without those features is not an assault weapon. And in fact, there are a bunch of examples like that."

To illustrate this point, compare the Ruger Mini-14 Ranch Rifle with the AR-15. One looks like a hunting rifle and the other looks like a military weapon. Although the rifles have different manufacturers and lineages, for all practical purposes they are identical. They fire at the same rate, they can fire the same caliber of ammunition, and because they have similar barrel lengths, the ballistics are almost identical. But only one is an "assault weapon."

Another misconception is that assault weapons are "automatic" firearms, which fire continuously until the trigger is released or the gun runs out of ammunition. The federal government banned the manufacture of new automatic weapons for civilian use in 1986.

Most modern civilian guns are semi-automatic, which means they only fire one round per trigger pull.

"But if you're talking about how many rounds you get out of the gun within a certain amount of time," says Sullum, "any semi-automatic is gonna fire be capable of firing the same number of rounds."

Another myth is that assault weapons are more powerful than other guns. In reality, the power of a firearm depends mainly on the cartridge, not the gun. Again, compare the Ruger Mini-14 Ranch Rifle with the AR-15. Both shoot the same .223 caliber bullet, at the same velocity.

"You will see that lots of hunting rifles are more powerful [and] can do more damage at the same distance than so-called assault weapons," says Sullum.

One of the most common cartridges used for hunting is the .308 Winchester, which has more than double the impact force when compared to the ammunition used in an AR-15.

Another common refrain is that assault weapons can fire more rounds than other guns before reloading. But it's the magazine, which is just a detachable box and a spring, that determines how many times you can fire. And many guns that are not identified as "assault weapons" accept high-capacity magazines.

"You can get high-capacity magazines or large-capacity magazines, meaning holding more than 10 rounds…for guns that are not considered to be assault weapons," says Sullum. "So again, this is not a feature that distinguishes assault weapons from other kinds of guns."

Banning guns solely based on appearance is counterproductive. It makes it difficult to have a good-faith discussion about effective solutions to gun violence.

"I'm not going to say everyone should own an AR-15," says Sullum, "but people have their reasons for wanting to have them and the government shouldn't be second-guessing those reasons without a very powerful justification. And the justification offered for banning assault weapons is virtually nonexistent because it doesn't make sense."

Produced and edited by Mark McDaniel. Cameras by Jim Epstein, Zach Weismuller, and McDaniel.

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81 responses to “Assault Weapon Bans Are All About Appearance

  1. Wrap a truly automatic weapon in a furry bunny cover and – Presto! – legal as a paper clip!

    1. You may be on to something. Are democrats afraid of anything that’s black?

  2. Amendment II
    A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

    All gun control is unconstitutional.

    Feinstein should be impeached for violating her oath of office.

    Where have all the good woodchippers gone?

    1. And yet when it comes to all sorts of Trump agenda items, your constitution is just an irrelevant piece of dusty toilet paper.

      Show us in the Constitution where it allows the federal government to control immigration. You can’t.

      loveconstitution1789|12.3.18 @ 10:20AM|#

      Do you need me to link the rules of NAFTA and USCMA so you can compare and contrast the “worseness” for us?

      So let’s discuss what you might cite if you were brave enough to make a fool of yourself in public.

      No telling from your handle if you consider the 14th amendment valid:

      All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

      but that has nothing to do with immigration.

      Neither does Article I section 8:

      To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization

      1. You are arguing with a high school kid.

        1. Sometimes he does post a bunch of cites. I’m trying to trick him into doing it again. Shhhh! Don’t tell him!

          1. Poor alphabet troll does not know a good citation from those cops got off his Mom last night and ticketed her for being too much of a whore.

        2. Even if I was high school kid who served in the military and own his own businesses, you trolls would still lose your arguments because your positions are shit.

      2. Since the constitution does not grant explicit power to the federal government to regulate immigration then the 10th amendment reserves that power to the states, which will create an even bigger mess

        1. Article I, Section 9, Clause 1:
          The migration or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each person.

          As of 1808, Congress can regulate migrations of free persons.

      3. Many people miss finer points, like the 2nd was crafted primarily to secure powers for governors [the fledgling US government having not much to wield] in dealing with invasion, insurrection or rebellion. The 14th has probably 98% of people glossing over “…and subject to the jurisdiction thereof”, which entails more than where somebody’s shoes happen to land – an illegal alien is a subject of a foreign power, and therefore should apply for citizenship – not self certify, which undermines congresses authority over immigration. The problem Feinstein is trying to create is illuminated by the horrid response time of Obama during his presidency: large crises took over a week for action in nearly all cases. Think of the LA riots with a 10 day lag time on calling out the guard and you can see where her thinking heads: cities in ashes or utter turmoil.
        We really, really need term limits for congress.

    2. I would prefer Feinstein be executed for her actions, and her treasonous dealings with Red China.

  3. It’s not like she cares if the legislation will really save lives. It’s just a way to appeal to the emotions of people who don’t know anything about how guns actually function.

    1. Why is it that liberals know so little about guns? You would think with how important the gun control issue supposedly is, they would have taken a few hours of time and boned up on guns in the past twenty years.

      1. Why do the research when your betters tell you what to think?

        1. I think Rev. Arty would agree whole heartedly with that.

      2. Some of us know quite a bit about guns, but those of us who do tend to be far more supportive of gun rights and against ineffective legislation like AWBs.

        You’d be surprised at how many liberals actually like the 2nd Amendment and heartily endorse lawful gun ownership.

    2. Guns in the hands of individuals make the Communist Manifesto income tax harder to collect. See Lysander Spooner’s brilliant satire of the Civil War income tax–so dear to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Red Republicans. On the same page Congress banned serving liquor to soldiers in DC.

  4. Keep pointing out how banned weapons are basically scary looking hunting rifles and the pols will start trying to ban all rifles. I’m astonished they haven’t done that yet.

    1. Gotta run before you can walk. The ‘slippery slope’ is not a fallacy when the the end game is regularly and nakedly stated: Repeal the 2nd amendment.

      The mindset behind it is that you have no right to self defense because it diminishes the power of the state. It’s like a doting mother that doesn’t want their adult child to get a job because they might move out someday.

      1. Nice analogy! I may steal that. It typifies the Progressive mindset.

        1. I feel like it runs counter to progressive ideals. The point of most of the liberal agenda is to ensure the people retain the power to govern themselves and prevent corporations, oligarchs, and religious fanatics from suppressing our freedoms.

          For some strange reason, some of us have this notion that because they don’t need or want a gun, no one else should either. Somehow banning all guns will miraculously eliminate violent crime, and the only expense will be those country bumpkins having to find a new hobby. Plus, lots more cute deer and other critters will be safe from those mean hunters!

          Liberals in the 60s actually campaigned in favor of gun rights, especially for oppressed minorities. It was considered part of restoring power to the people. When their rebellious streak ran out and they started getting steady jobs and having kids, suddenly those oppressed minorities became scary criminals that posed a threat to their suburban communities. Mix that with politicians of both major parties competing to see who was tougher on crime, and you get to our current state. While Republicans focused on disarming gangs and other undesirables, Democrats felt it should be equally enforced on everyone. Rather than stick to their principles, they accepted the premise that guns were the problem and ran with it.

          1. “I feel like it runs counter to progressive ideals. The point of most of the liberal agenda is to ensure the people retain the power to govern themselves and prevent corporations, oligarchs, and religious fanatics from suppressing our freedoms.”

            Yes, you certainly feel – because you don’t know shit. Otherwise, you wouldn’t write something so blatantly idiotic and delusional.
            Damn, even Tony is more self aware

            1. Maybe DuneChild was asleep for the past 50 years.

          2. “Liberal” changed meaning in November 1932 Amerika. It suddenly meant godless legalizer of the Demon Rum. Everywhere else it still means libertarian gelding. “Left wing” changed into uppity native commie in British India, and “right wing”–once purely descriptive of military battle deployments–was also retasked as an euphemism. You can see these trends in online newspaper archives.

          3. “I feel like it runs counter to progressive ideals. The point of most of the liberal agenda is to ensure the people retain the power to govern themselves and prevent corporations, oligarchs, and religious fanatics from suppressing our freedoms.”

            That’s like saying that the point of a Ponzi scheme is to make the investors wealthy.

            The point of the liberal agenda is to transfer ever more power and wealth to the people at the top, under the pretext of yadda, yadda, yadda.

      2. 2A was the argument that preserved the Strategic Defense Initiative–that and the right to respond to the initiation of force contained in Article 1 Section 10: “…or engage in War, unless actually invaded, or in such imminent Danger as will not admit of delay.” International Sino-Soviet Socialism will never forgive or forget that effrontery!

  5. Will they ban bayonet lugs again?

    1. I have replica 1842 and 1861 Springfields with bayonet lugs, and the bayonets (funny trying to walk around a house with the bayonet on, especially on the longer 1842 musket; you have to keep the butt just above floor level to keep the bayonet from snagging on doorways). I wonder how long it would take President Warren to band them as assault weapons.

      1. Under Pressident Warren, anything made of metal and not shaped like a spoon will be a banned assault weapon.

      2. Warren Gamaliel Harding defended the Bill of Rights and did not want to transfer US sovereignty to the League of Looter Nations.

    2. Oh, I dearly hope so! I really appreciated the ten-year respite from drive-by gang bayonet charges that occurred under the original assault weapons ban!

      Unfortunately, bayonet deaths returned to pre-1994 levels *immediately* after the assault weapon ban sunsetted in 2004!

      1. Unfortunately, bayonet deaths returned to pre-1994 levels *immediately* after the assault weapon ban sunsetted in 2004!

        You, sir, are my hero of the day

  6. According to longtime libertarian activist Michael Hihn, there are plenty of common sense gun safety laws that would be perfectly constitutional. Of course banning deadly military style assault weapons would not completely eliminate gun-related fatalities in the US. But it would be a promising start.

    1. Yer slipping! “promising” is true, they are promising all sorts of utopia.

    2. Approximately one half of one percent of firearm homicides are committed with so-called “assault weapons” Even if a ban prevents every single one of those deaths I’d hardly call it any sort of start, let alone a promising one.

    3. According to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports table on homicides by weapon used, in a typical year, 350-400 people are killed by murderers using rifles of all types; assault weapons like AR-15 and AK-47 are a subset of rifles actually minority.

      In a typical year, 700 or so people are killed by murders using personal weapons, far more than are killed with assault weapons like the AR-15.

      What are these killer personal weapons used to take lives more often than AR-15s? The FBI describes them as Hands, Fists, Feet, etc.

      You are more likely to be killed this very day by a Personal Weapon than by an Assault Weapon. Banning Personal Weapons is guaranteed to save more lives than banning Assault Weapons. It is worth it for the children. Do it now.

      1. Ah, but you forgot to include the number of people who were killed by bayonets in your number. I’m pretty sure your analysis will change significantly as soon as you add those numbers in!

        Which is why we need to ban guns with bayonet lugs, but *only* if the gun also has at least one of a pistol grip, or a barrel shroud, or an adjustable stock.

        Because a rifle’s bayonet isn’t dangerous until it has at least of of those other features as well….

        1. Nah, all the new bans are “single feature” bans, so instead of 2 you just need 1 naughty bit now

  7. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s latest bill classifies firearms not by what they do but based on how they look.

    Umm … isn’t she, like, the highest ranking female congress rep? How about we just ban fuchsia guns? Have you ever tried buying shoes to match your fuchsia gun collection?

    1. A basic black heel goes with anything.

      1. And especially with nothing.

        1. Do you really want to go there? We’re discussing Dianne Feinstein here, after all.

          1. We just can’t have a nice thoughts.

  8. Maybe if they tried a “scary looking” gun ban instead of an “assault weapon” ban, Americans would be more willing to give up their constitutional rights? Sure!

    1. Didn’t Obama have a scary-looking squirt gun? It reminded me of those things in Mars Attacks!

      1. Not sure about the squirt gun, but if they had a picture it was probably Photo shopped like the famous shotgun shooting trap photo!

  9. This point is not new; I’ve been making it for years. Yes, “assault weapons” are just semi-automatic rifles tarted-up to look military – that’s why gun nuts and mass murderers drool over’em so much. There’s a little boy in all of us, eh? The obvious solution is to allow their sale in hollow plastic, with a noise generator that makes really cool sounds when you pull the trigger. That way, everyone can play soldier without the burden of signing-up for a six year stint (which I concede feels like a long time). Hell, why not get everyone together – gun nuts and mass-murderers all – and form a well regulated militia with your toy guns that make cool sounds? Imagine the fun running around in your backyard…….

    1. No, the obvious solution is to realize that people with so-called assault weapons, for all intents and purposes, don’t really do all that much harm (even if you include the mass-murderers, because mass murder events are *very* rare, and often don’t even use so-called weapons) and leave peaceable people with so-called assault weapons alone.

  10. “The federal government banned assault weapons in 1994”

    Mark, Mark, Mark; Reason, Reason, Reason:
    The 1994 law DID NOT BAN “assault weapons”. It prohibited the new manufacture or importation of “assault weapons”. “Assault weapons” made before that law took effect remained perfectly legal to own, sell, buy, operate, etc.

  11. The reason why any national gun bans will be ineffective, with the exception of rare pieces like machine guns, is because there are hundreds of millions of them in the country and those will be grandfathered in. I don’t believe the government has the authority to force people to turn in their weapons, even if any of the politicians were actually interested in grabbing them, so the best they can do is stop the sales and wait 2000 years for the existing guns to work their way out of the system.

    1. Khyber Pass. In little workshops, with scrap wood and metal, a vise, hand drill, files, gunsmiths replicate everything from Webley revolvers to AK-47s. Ban legal guns and energize the illegal manufacture. Google “DIY guns Carlo” It’s everywhere.

      The simplest type of repeating firearm to replicate is the open-bolt submachine gun of the Carl Gustav M45, Sten, or MAC-10 variety.

    2. Socialist Brazil tried that. All weapons not turned in became illegal. But the new National Socialist government has vague plans for making that a little less absolute. Every taxpayer wants to leave and move to where there is a Second Amendment, but Puerto Rico isn’t large enough.

  12. All of politics is all about appearance.

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  14. To illustrate this point, compare the Ruger Mini-14 Ranch Rifle with the AR-15.

    Fuck that. Compare the Ruger Mini-14 “Ranch rifle”, with the Ruger Mini-14 “Tactical rifle”. Same fucking hardware. Different stock. One is an assault weapon, the other is not.

  15. “Banning guns solely based on appearance is counterproductive. It makes it difficult to have a good-faith discussion about effective solutions to gun violence.”

    Look, everything in what passes for social discourse and politics in the US is now about appearance. First we gave the morons the vote, and then we gave them the internet. We are truly fucked.

  16. True, intense fanatical commitment may have summoned forth martyrs eager to give their all to repeal the 2nd Amendment. We’ve seen people immolate themselves with gasoline and fly planes into buildings, drink cyanide and poison subway cars. Were it not for the 2nd Amendment the US might have signed away our defenses Nixon-style then surrendered to the Altrurian Soviet. We’d be one big happy Venezuela. When’s the last time some high-profile mass shooting hit the news in Venezuela?

  17. She is an idiot. The end.

    1. She is an idiot with supporters and some power. Don’t count on it being the end. Ignoring the threat will not make it go away.

  18. She’s just looking I’m the wrong end.

  19. We’re so lucky to have idiots in Congress. How else could we become $21TRILLION in debt. And of 1808 Congress controls immigration- but they don’t. Jail them all!

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  23. This is why I call them scary looking guns.

  24. As long as the Senate is controlled by the Republicans, her bill will not make it to the floor.

  25. The bans and laws they pass only effect people who obey the law. None are ever obeyed by criminals. Too bad they can’t be honest and admit they want to disarm law abiding citizens.

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  28. The arbitrary and ineffective nature of the ’94 ban was deliberate. It wasn’t an effort to accomplish anything effective. It was an effort to get a legal foot in the door, to establish that the federal government COULD ban guns, and arbitrarily. Because the federal government had, literally, never banned a gun before 1994. They’d heavily taxed them, they’d refused to accept payment of the tax unless you had some special status, but they’d literally never actually banned a gun before that.

    If they’d held onto power they’d have repealed the sunset provision, and then just kept amending it to add more and more guns. But first they had to establish that they had the power to ban guns.

    1. I’ve read a number of comments around from people claiming the new “assault weapons” bans aren’t really bans because they specifically exempt more guns than they ban (over 2,000) But the exemptions just tip their hand to their ultimate goal: to make *all* guns illegal other than those specifically exempted

      Why else exempt hundred of guns from being considered “semi-automatic assault weapons” that aren’t even semi-automatic? They have bolt and level action, even single shot firearms on there that don’t even qualify to submit to the “feature test” so why the need to exempt them unless you plan on greatly expanding the scope of the ban?

  29. Same Old, same old.

  30. Not even with a powerful justification. Why the hell is “Shall Not Be Infringed” so hard to understand. I’ve I once heard someone say the founders didn’t really mean it the way we hear it. Bullshit. They spoke English perfectly well, understood the words and their implications. What if, just for a moment think, What if “Shall Not Be Infringed” is exactly what they meant? I do not for a moment think they wrote that with the the idea that over time it would be rationalized away. Just the opposite. They wrote that so it wouldn’t be.

  31. I’m in NY, where we have an expanded “assault weapons” ban. The ban seeks to prohibit the proliferation of military-style firearms. I have a Ruger 10/22, a very common .22 caliber target rifle. It is easy to switch it from one stock to another. (It might take a minute or so). The whole action, barrel, and trigger group just drop into the stock, with one screw holding it. So if I have a thumb-hole stock, or a stock with a pistol grip, or other “military style” characteristics, the rifle becomes an assault weapon. In a stock without the offending characteristics, it is not. But regardless of the stock, it uses the same ammo, has the same muzzle velocity, accuracy, etc. And, what military would send soldiers into battle with a .22 long-rifle cartridge?

  32. I like this article. I don’t have guns at my house, so wouldn’t know that this was a bullshit bill. Mass shootings by nut jobs have people scared, and this is a way a politician is attempting to capitalize on that fear. When the cray cray couple killed all those people a couple years back at the Regional Center in San Bernadino, I was scared shitless, because my wife sometimes takes our daughter there, though on rare occasions. I get those of you who want your freedom, I support it, but you need to understand the nature of what people are thinking and fearing in order to address it.

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