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.