Editor’s Note: “Assault weapons” are the low-hanging fruit for gun control legislators. Many people are willing to get behind the banning of weapons that look scary and that they will probably never purchase themselves.
Introduction: In the late 1980s, gun control groups realized that they had failed in their original goal—getting handguns banned1—and began campaigning against semi-automatic firearms they called “assault weapons,” most of which are rifles.
As an anti-gun activist group put it:
[A]ssault weapons [will] strengthen the handgun restriction lobby for the following reasons: It will be a new topic in what has become to the press and public an “old” debate. . . . [H]andgun restriction consistently remains a non-issue with the vast majority of legislators, the press, and public. . . . Efforts to restrict assault weapons are more likely to succeed than those to restrict handguns. . . . Although the opportunity to restrict assault weapons exists, a question remains for the handgun restriction movement: How?”2
Gun control supporters demanding a ban on “assault weapons” have also demanded a ban on ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, most of which are designed for self-defense handguns.
These gun and magazine bans should be rejected because:
Reason #1: Semi-automatic firearms are not fully-automatic military machine guns. Gun control supporters say that semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 are “military-style assault weapons” designed for “war” on “the battlefield.” To the contrary, the military uses fully-automatic rifles, which are regulated as “machineguns” by the National Firearms Act of 1934. The difference is that a fully-automatic firearm can fire repeatedly and quickly as long as you hold down the trigger, but a semi-automatic, like any firearm other than a fully-automatic, fires only once when you pull the trigger.
Reason #2: Semi-automatic firearms are not “more powerful” than other guns. Gun control supporters call “assault weapons” (and all other firearms, for that matter) “high-powered.” However, a firearm’s power is determined by the caliber or gauge of its ammunition, semi-automatic rifles and shotguns use the same ammunition as many other rifles and shotguns, and semi-automatic handguns use ammunition comparable to revolver ammunition. So-called “assault weapons” are much less powerful than many rifles used to hunt deer and other large game.
Reason #3: As the numbers of “assault weapons” and “large” magazines have soared to all-time highs, violent crime has been cut in half. The nation’s total violent crime rate peaked in 1991. Since then, through 2012, it has decreased 49%, to a 42-year low, including a 52% drop in the nation’s murder rate, to a 49-year low—perhaps the lowest point in American history.3 Meanwhile, the number of the most popular firearm that gun control supporters call an “assault weapon”—the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle—has risen by over 4.5 million, the number of all semi-automatic firearms has risen by over 50 million, and the total number of privately-owned firearms has risen by over 130 million.4 The number of new magazines that hold more than 10 rounds has risen by many tens of millions.5
Reason #4: So-called “assault weapons” have never been used in more than a small percentage of firearm-related violent crime. The study that Congress required of the federal “assault weapon” and “large” magazine ban of 1994-2004 concluded that “the banned weapons and magazines were never used in more than a modest fraction of all gun murders” even before the ban, and that the law’s 10-round limit on new ammunition magazines wasn’t a factor in multiple-victim or multiple-wound crimes.6 A follow-up study found “gunshot injury incidents involving pistols (which use magazines) were less likely to produce a death than were those involving revolvers” (which don’t use magazines), and “the average number of wounds for pistol victims was actually lower than that for revolver victims.”7 Police reports and felon surveys have found that “assault weapons” are used in only 1%-2% of violent crimes.8 The vast majority of firearms that gun control supporters call “assault weapons” are rifles, and during the most recent five years of data, there were nine times as many murders with knives, blunt objects (hammers, clubs, etc.), and “personal weapons” (hands, feet, etc.), as with rifles of any type.9