Gun Control

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.


HD Download

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.

"Day Into Night" by Rho is licensed under a Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

"See You Soon" by Borrtex is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial License.

"The First" by Scott Gratton is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial License.

Photo Credit:

Ingram Publishing/Newscom

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Newscom




Joyce N. Boghosian/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Christopher Dilts/Sipa USA/Newscom

David Santiago/TNS/Newscom

Mike Stocker/TNS/Newscom

Allison Zaucha/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Sam Simmonds/Polaris/Newscom

ZUMA Press/Newscom

NEXT: Stossel: Legal Weed So Far

HD Download

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. The absurdity here is that AWBs essentially attempt to outlaw better than 60 years of firearm technology. Imagine the government banning any automobile technology incorporated into cars from 1960 onward (approximate date of the development of the AR-15). Or banning computer technology more current than vacuum tubes. Yet, that is precisely what is attempted here with AWBs – the banning of modern technology.

    Here is some explanation of some of the AWB “features”:
    – pistol grip – simple ergonomics, which is why we find them all over the place, such as with electrical drills
    – adjustable butt stock – easily allows shooters of different sizes to utilize the same firearm. In the past, you would have to keep changing firearms or stocks as a kid grew up, or a husband and wife would have to each have their own rifle. This way, they can share.
    – threaded barrel – this allows people to switch between different types of muzzle breaks and flash hiders, or add a silencer. Different situations call for different things. And without a threaded barrel, you are stuck with the flash hider that is permanently attached to the barrel. If that isn’t right, then you have to replace the entire barrel.
    – barrel shroud – makes it easier to hold a gun when it starts heating up, and allows the attachment of accessories.

    That all said, I am perfectly willing to give up bayonet lugs. Everything else goes to either ergonomics or modularity.

    1. When was the last time you heard someone getting bayoneted? I thought so. Douglas Welsh’s book on the civil war claims bayonet wounds were very rare, on the order of 1000 for the whole war, and most were self inflicted.

      I am not willing to ‘give up’ anything however I might consider a trade. Want to ban bayonet lugs? ( or get those universal background checks…) pass National Conceal Carry Reciprocity with the same legislation. If the left is unwilling to compromise they should get nothing.

  2. “…..The right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed” .

    Clearly, Madison was only referring to Feinstien’s taxpayer funded armed security guards.

  3. “Nobody ‘needs’ a gun”
    / Leeland Yee, rabid anti gun CA. Senator, currently serving in prison for running guns to gangsters

  4. These bans have always been about cosmetics. People like Feinstein use how they look to scare the uninformed into accepting they are some type of weapon they are not, a military weapon. Not one of the features in her ban has any significant impact on its operation. All just make the rifle “look scary”.

Please to post comments