This term has two nearly-unrelated meanings. It has a technical military meaning (where it’s a sub-caliber fully-automatic weapon for close combat), and a modern political meaning (where it’s any semi-automatic rifle that looks aggressive). I’m talking largely about the meaning given the term in the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban (which was allowed to expire in 2004).
Let’s take a quick look at those two degrees of automation. A “fully-automatic” rifle is a small machine-gun; holding back the trigger causes the rifle to continue firing (until the magazine is empty, which would be pretty quickly with a 30-round magazine and a 600 rounds per minute firing rate, for example). A “semi-automatic” or “auto-loading” rifle is one where the recoil or gas generated from one round is used to load the next round and cock the rifle, ready to fire again. With a semi-automatic rifle, you get one bang per trigger pull.
You often hear people talking about “high-powered assault weapons”. This always makes me laugh, because being low powered is part of the military definition, and the civilian definition doesn’t relate to power at all. Most of the rifles classified as “assault weapons” by the 1994 ban fired the NATO 5.56mm round (or very similar civilian .223 Remington round) or the Russian 7.62×39 round. The .223 (650 foot-pounds at 200 yards) is too weak to be legal for deer in many states. The 7.62×39 (900 foot-pounds at 200 yards) is just barely powerful enough to be legal for deer, putting it at the very bottom of the range of big-game hunting rounds (along with the classic .30-30 (900 foot-pounds at 200 yards)). Both are far, far less powerful than for example the .30-06 (1700 foot-pounds at 200 yards), which is itself a midrange round, marginal except in the most expert hands for even big North American game like moose (don’t even think about taking on Cape buffalo, elephant, rhinoceros, or hippopotamus with a .30-06; yeah, I know people have done it).
Civilians can legally own machine guns in many states, if they meet the state requirements plus pay a special transfer tax and grant special permissions (including the right to conduct surprise visits at any time) to the BATFE. The transfer tax is $200. In addition, they can (these days) only buy machine guns manufactured before 1986, so the prices are astronomical (ten thousand dollars and up). For these reasons, very very few people actually do (mostly serious hobbiests who get licensed as machine gun manufacturers so they can make their own). Legal civilian machine-guns don’t seem to ever show up at crime scenes.
The 1994 federal ban named certain specific models, and in addition to that specified features that, if a rifle had too many of, would automatically ban it. From Wikipedia, those characteristics were:
- Semi-automatic rifles able to accept detachable magazines and two or more of the following:
- Folding stock
- Conspicuous pistol grip
- Bayonet mount
- Flash suppressor, or threaded barrel designed to accommodate one
- Grenade launcher (more precisely, a muzzle device which enables the launching or firing of rifle grenades)
So far as anybody has been able to tell, this list has nothing whatsoever to do with utility in criminal activities or even popularity among criminals. What it is, is an attempt to ban “evil black rifles”.
The AR-15 is the most popular evil black rifle.
There are at least four reasons why they shouldn’t be banned:
- Nobody has shown any benefit to be gained from banning them.
- Our individual right to keep and bear arms (affirmed by the 2nd amendment to the US Constitution) certainly includes military-type weapons.
- They include many of the cheapest hunting rifles available (military surplus SKSs, for example). They also include many of the rifles that fire cheap (surplus) ammunition. Firearms should not be a hobby reserved for the rich!
- The characteristics that make them subject to the ban are not related to any danger factor.
There should be no need to show a “need” for civilian ownership of this kind of firearm; the burden of proof should rest on the other side, to show some compelling reason for banning them. But as long as I’m scribbling on the topic, I’ll point out that these rifles are widely used in marksmanship competition, home defense, varmint and small game hunting, “plinking” (informal non-competitive target shooting), and some of them for hunting larger game (where legal). Collectors also like to have examples of them, because of their military heritage.
I don’t think I can describe very well the degree to which the assault weapons ban was reviled in the gun community. Baldly, it was viewed as the first big move towards banning most guns and confiscating existing guns (a move which the gun community believes is intended by the anti-gun groups; they’ve admitted it in public now and then, so I think that’s accurate). Taking away fun, popular, widely-used guns, some of them inexpensive, for no apparent reason (and, with 10 years of statistics to sort through, no sign of any benefit), could only be something done for spite and as part of a larger plan. It was also viewed as a clear sign that the people supporting it “just don’t get it”. They don’t get that these guns are not especially dangerous, not widely used in crime, and are widely popular among gun people.
And despite his assurances (couched in language carefully avoiding the question), I’m afraid our president elect would support a new attempt at an assault weapons ban. I really hope I’m wrong–because we need him for eight years. And if he really motivates the gun rights bloc, we may not have him (or a supportive congress) that long.
Please, if you can possibly bring yourself to do it, actively resist another assault weapons ban. If it were passed, it would accomplish nothing good, and even trying and failing would be very polarizing. And it’s a distraction from much more important things that are worth fighting over, like health care, and the economy and taxes and financial regulation, and extricating ourselves from Iraq, and starting to restore our world stature. I’d love to talk to anybody who wants to know more about the subject.