Assault weapons.

In America, a lot of people own guns, but most people don’t own any guns.[1] Therefore, most people get confused by the terminology bandied about in public discourse. Government estimates are that Americans own 310 million guns: 196 million “long guns” (110 million rifles; 86 million shotguns), and 114 million hand guns (pistols). Perhaps 4 million of the “long guns’ are what might be called “assault weapons.”[2] A semi-automatic weapon fires one round each time the trigger is pulled. Semi-automatic weapons are fully legal, whether pistols, rifles, or shotguns. In contrast, an automatic weapon fires continuously as long as the trigger is depressed. So, an automatic weapon is a machine gun. These have been banned since 1934.

There is nothing like war to encourage innovation. One of the weapons that made the First World War so appalling was the machine gun—a heavy weapon served by the crew of three or four. Toward the end of the war, weapons-designers invented single-man-portable machine guns: the Thompson sub-machine gun and the Bergmann machine pistol. Other countries soon followed. Toward the end of the Second World War, the German weapon-designer Hugo Schmeisser (yes, that one) produced the “Sturmgewehr” (“storm rifle”). The Russkies soon adapted this into the AK-47.[3] The US countered with the M-16. Both weapons are “selective fire”: they can fire on either automatic or semi-automatic.

There is a semi-automatic version of the M-16 that is known under the generic label of the AR-15. The civilian version of these weapons still fire at a high rate (up to 50 rounds per minute) and they have little recoil. The latter facilitates a different kind of “gun control” than what liberals have in mind.

Sales of semi-automatic, civilian versions of “assault rifles” have been booming. One type rose from 4,600 sold in 2006 to 100,000 sold in 2010. Part of this reflects a deep distrust of the federal government.[4] “The weapons that would be most suited to overthrow a dictatorial federal government would, of course, be weapons of war, and not sports equipment.”[5]

Homicides rarely involve “assault weapons.” In 2011, there were 323 murders committed with any kind of rifle, but there were 6,220 committed with hand-guns. “Assault weapons” were used in less than half of the “mass shootings” in the last thirty years. On the other hand, some of the most eye-catching mass killings involved “assault weapons”: the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado, and the Sandy Hook School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, both used civilian versions of “assault weapons.” One estimate suggests that banning assault weapons[6] would reduce the death toll from shootings by as much as 100 victims per year. That isn’t much in comparison to the 11,000 gun homicides a year in the United States. Unless you’re one of the dead or the bereaved.

On one level, the question is how did James Holmes (Aurora, CO), or Adam Lanza (Newtown, CN), or Jared Loughner (Phoenix, AZ) get a gun in the first place? On another level, the question is why people are obsessed by 4 million weapons that caused 300-odd deaths?

The real issue is hand-guns. Who owns them? Why? Would regulation work?

[1] If you just “don’t like guns,” then my tedious explanation is not for you. I understand your emotions, but do not share them.

[2] “The assault weapon,” The Week, 15 February 2013, p. 11.

[3] See: “The Gun That Made the Nineties Roar.”

[4] Which criminalized Japanese ancestry in 1941.

[5] David Kopel, Cato Institute, quoted in “The assault weapon,” The Week, 15 February 2013, p. 11.

[6] As Australia did after one terrible massacre in 1996.

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