Assault Rifle.

Rates of gun ownership in the United States have fallen sharply since the 1970s, from 50 percent of households to 30 percent of households.[1]  However, ownership of “assault-style weapons” has increased dramatically.

An “assault rifle” is a military weapon that is shorter and lighter than a traditional military rifle; and has a “selective fire” capability.[2]  The latter term means that it can fire on “automatic” (pull the trigger once and then hold on until all the ammunition is gone); “burst” (fire 2-3 rounds each time the trigger is pulled); and semi-automatic (fires and then loads one round each time the trigger is pulled).  In most cases, private ownership of automatic weapons like assault weapons was banned by the National Firearms Act of 1934.[3]

The weapon that is commonly referred to in the media as an “assault weapon” or “assault rifle” actually is an “assault-style weapon.”  These are solely semi-automatic versions of the “selective fire” assault weapons used by the military.  They look the same, but they don’t do the same.  Neither gun control advocates nor journalists care about the distinction.  Maybe they’re right.

Generally speaking, “assault-style weapons” make little contribution to America’s high homicide rate.  In 2014, 3 percent of homicide victims were killed with any kind of rifle.  On the other hand, the weapons have been used in several spectacular mass shootings in recent years.  The killers at Sandy Hook, Aurora, San Bernardino, Orlando, and Dallas all used “assault-style weapons.”

“Assault-style weapons” have long been a bete noire of gun control advocates.   In 1994 Congress passed a ten year ban on the sale of 19 different variants of “assault weapons.”  Mass shootings increased slightly during the period of the ban.  Congress did not renew the ban when it expired in 2004.  Mass shootings increased slightly after the ending of the ban.

The most popular “assault style weapon” in the United States is the AR-15 or one of its many knock-offs.[4]  (There are more than 8 million AR-15s in private possession in the United States.)  The AR-15 is the semi-automatic version of the fully automatic M-16 rifle used by the Army and the Marine Corps.  The weapons are light, rugged, carefully machined, and easily personalized.  They’re a lot of fun to shoot.  It is also likely that gun owners want them just because control advocates want to ban them.

This impulse appeared in the huge increase in sales of “assault-style weapons” after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012.  President Barack Obama urged Congress to re-instate the expired ban on “assault-style weapons.”   Gun-owners flocked to buy the weapons before Congress acted.  They needn’t have worried.

While most Americans move—ponderously in the eyes of enlightened opinion here and abroad—away from gun ownership, a minority of Americans embrace more extreme forms of gun ownership.  It is trite, but true, to see two cultures struggling to assert their views.  America has a long history of the majority trampling on minorities; and of minorities finding ways to survive.  It might be better to treat guns like smoking: “education” rather than coercion.

[1] The Sixties and Seventies were more menacing times to live through than they appear in gauzy hindsight.  The men of the “Greatest Generation” had some experience with handling firearms and didn’t have an attack of the vapors in the presence of firearms.  The rural areas hadn’t emptied out yet.

[2] Generally, these weapons have a much shorter range than traditional rifles.  The effective range of an AR-15 is less than 500 yards, while the effective range of the M1903 Springfield used in the First World War is 1,000 yards.

[3] “Why assault weapons are so popular,” The Week, 15 July 2016, p. 11.

[4] The patent expired, so more than 280 manufacturers crowded into the market to compete with Colt.

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