Assault Weapons Ban: 3 Myths That Cloud the Issue


The president has called for more restrictions on gun-ownership. Like most advocates of tighter gun regulations, the president’s ideas are sincere, conventional, and mostly wrong.

Lawmakers can’t expect to come up with good ideas for restricting guns until they understand them. To do that, they need to overcome three myths perpetrated by the media that have become especially prevalent in light of recent shootings.

Myth Number 1: Assault weapons are available for civilians to purchase. Reading over the Congressional definition of an assault rifle, one is reminded of Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of pornography: he didn’t know how to define it, but he knew it when he saw it. But somehow, I get the sense that the people who crafted the 1994 assault weapons ban didn’t see any gun; instead, they saw Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, and Rambo. Despite America having a large number of gun owners (I’m one of them), very few own anything which the media typically refers to as an “assault rifle.” For this reason, what most people — including politicians — know about assault rifles they know from movies. This is most likely the reason why the media commonly uses the term “assault weapon” when referring to the semi-automatic rifle used by the murderer.

This, for instance, comes from a PolicyMic colleague: “A simple starting point for Congress to do is to ban any type of permit allowing automatic/high-powered firearms to fall into the arms of civilians. These weapons were designed for our troops in war, not civilian vs. civilian ‘protection.’” Actually, the weapon used at Sandy Hook Elementary was not an “automatic” weapon; weapons designed for troops in war are not available to civilians. The semi-automatic weapon used was more closely related to an antique than to a modern military rifle. It may have looked like weapons that politicians and journalists saw in The Hurt Locker or Act of Valor, but military-style weapons fire like this. Civilian-owned semi-automatic rifles fire like this.  

The “assault” weapon ban of 1994 completely ignored this fact. Its regulations are not only tedious; they are arbitrary. A rifle is not made more dangerous because it has a pistol grip; nonetheless, if a semi-automatic rifle with a detachable magazine has one, according to the Congress of 1994, it is half way to being an “assault rifle.” 

Myth Number 2: Semi-automatic rifles are only used for marksmanship and shooting people. This myth is typically perpetrated by urban-based journalists and politicians who have no idea what people from rural America use guns for in the first place. Here, for example, is Jon Meacham following the mass shooting in Aurora:

“I own guns — shotguns and rifles — and I hunt quail. I don’t want to give up my guns. But I know this: there isn’t the remotest chance under the sun that I will have to. And I know this too: the kind of assault rifle used in the Aurora massacre — an AR-15, which is essentially a civilian version of the military’s M-16 — has no sporting purpose save play acting, in which the shooter is in some kind of combat situation. You don’t need an AR-15 to hunt, and you certainly don’t need the high-capacity magazine that was reportedly used even if your interest is target shooting on a range.”

Meacham probably means well and does really like his guns, but before he wrote the column, he probably should have asked himself if there is more dangerous game than quail. Cosmopolitan hunters tend to believe that animals are furry and toothless, when many of the growing wildlife populations of the United States are bristly and tusked. You may not need an assault rifle to take down a deer, but a wild boar’s skull is thick enough to ricochet a bullet right off of it if the bullet doesn’t hit with sufficient speed.

More importantly, semi-automatic weapons give the opportunity for a second shot. The way that the media talks about semi-automatic weapons, it’s easy to think that they are dangerous because they allow shooters to acquire many targets in a short amount of time. In reality, semi-automatic weapons are unique because they make it easier for shooters to put multiple bullets in one spot without losing sight picture. If you’re hunting a buck with eleven point antlers, a gray wolf, a boar, or a buffalo, that’s probably not an animal you want to let out of your sights.

Myth Number 3: Magazines are meant to be loaded to full capacity. Politicians and pundits are calling for magazine manufacturers to drastically decrease the round capacity of magazines (as though shooters can’t reload or bring a second or third gun). Some are calling for as few as ten rounds per magazine.

In reality, a fully loaded magazine will not fire effectively, as fully loading a magazine places enormous pressure on the magazine spring, increasing the chances that the gun will jam as the spring tries to thrust two rounds into a barrel that can only fit one. (This is likely the reason why the Clackamas shooter’s weapon jammed — if anyone has more information on this subject, please update us in the comments section.)

Some of the advantages of an extended magazine can be deduced from the previous paragraphs: dangerous game requires more dangerous weapons. But also, the availability of extended magazines may be useful to American soldiers and civilians deployed to warzones. While soldiers cannot use privately-owned weapons for combat, amenities, such as front pistol grips and detachable magazines, are a grayer area. The military rarely issues magazines above a 30 round capacity (which, realistically, effectively holds more like 25), but a soldier with three magazines each loaded with 40 rounds will have a significant tactical advantage over a soldier with six magazines loaded with only 20 rounds each. (This is true of pistols as well.)

The military could begin issuing magazines with higher round capacity; this may happen eventually but it is unlikely to happen any time soon since change in the military, like other government organizations, happens slowly. Until it does happen, soldiers who don’t want to reload during a firefight will have to depend on the same vendors as civilians do.

How can we control gun violence? While most of the reforms currently on the table in Washington are not the answer, we can still do a lot to reduce gun violence. (And when I say gun violence, I don’t just mean violence, I mean gun violence.) If not a ban on assault weapons or extended magazines, what should be done?

The best place to start is giving control back to communities. This doesn’t mean that communities should be free to decide what guns people will be allowed to own; it means that they should be able to decide what people should be allowed to own guns.

In practice, this system might mean that authorities could require individuals to get an endorsement of their firearm purchases from a family member or friend (who would then share some responsibility for the purchaser’s use of the weapon). The system might also require that several endorsements would be necessary for the purchase of more dangerous weapons.

This system wouldn’t be perfect. It might have prevented the shootings in Aurora and Blacksburg but probably not the shooting in Newtown. But it would probably be the best way to ensure that dangerous firearms found their way into responsible hands.

It also has something for both sides to like. For gun control advocates, it would severely restrict the ability of mentally-disturbed individuals to purchase guns and for gun rights proponents it would possibly open the door for responsible gun owners whom the community trusted to buy weapons which they are now been unable to purchase. I don’t know about anyone else, but if I ever hunt a javelina I hope that I can put three bullets in it while only pulling the trigger once.