Even Defining ‘Assault Weapons’ Is Complicated
One obstacle President Obama could face in proposing a new federal ban on assault weapons could be the use of the term “assault weapon” itself.
The label used for a group of firearms sold in the civilian market has become so politicized over the past few decades that people’s attitude towards the gun issue can often be inferred from their use of the term.
Perhaps there is no more hotly debated topic on internet forums than what a weapon of attack is. And some argue that it would be impossible to find a definition comprehensive enough to effectively take the weapons off the market.
Proponents of a ban on assault weapons argue that the term should apply to firearms as used in Newtown, Connecticut, in shootings and other recent mass murders – semi-automatic rifles with detachable magazines and “military” features such as pistol grips, flash dampers, and collapsible or folding stocks.
Such firearms were developed for the battlefield, which is about killing as many enemy soldiers as possible quickly, and they have no place in civil life.
“When the military switched to this assault weapon, the whole context changed,” said Tom Diaz, formerly of the Violence Policy Center, whose book “The Last Gun” on the militarization of civilian firearms is due to be published this spring. “The conversation became, ‘Is that the kind of weapon you want in the civilian world?’ And we who advocate regulation say, ‘No, you don’t.’ ”
But Second Amendment groups – and many gun owners – strongly oppose the use of “assault weapons” to describe weapons that they say are routinely used in shooting and hunting. They argue that the term should only be used for firearms capable of fully automatic firing, such as those used by law enforcement agencies and the military. They prefer the term “tactical rifle” or “modern sport rifle” for the semi-automatic civilian versions.
They argue that any attempt to ban “assault weapons” is misguided, as the weapons in question differ from many other firearms only in design.
“The reality is that there is very little difference between a sporting firearm and what is called an assault weapon,” said Steven C. Howard, lawyer and firearms expert in Lansing, Michigan.
The semantics of the offensive weapons debate are so explosive that they can even trip opponents.
Phillip Peterson, an Indiana arms dealer and author of Gun Digest Buyer’s Guide to Assault Weapons (2008) said he argued with publishers about the use of the term in the title, knowing it would only attract anger would the arms industry.
Following the passage of the federal offensive weapons ban in 1994, Peterson said the arms industry “embarrassed or ridiculed” anyone who used “assault weapons” to describe anything other than firearms capable of fully automatic firing.
His instincts proved correct: the National Rifle Association refused to sell the book on their website, he said. In 2010, Mr. Peterson produced another version that contained “90 percent of the same information” but was renamed “Gun Digest Buyer’s Guide to Tactical Rifles.” This book made it onto the NRA site, he said.
Equally controversial are the definitions for which firearms are to be considered assault weapons. Most assault weapon bans have been primarily directed against rifles such as the AR-15, a semi-automatic version of the military’s M-16 sold in the civilian market, although certain pistols and shotguns have also been included.
The most basic criteria have to do with the ability of a firearm to fire multiple shots quickly. Because of this, the firearms that are covered by any assault weapons ban are usually semi-automatic, which means that a new cartridge is automatically reloaded into the chamber but not fired until the trigger is pulled again. The guns also have detachable magazines that allow them to fire 10, 20, 30 or more rounds without the need for a new magazine.
After that, however, the definition becomes more difficult. In calling for a renewed ban on Wednesday, Obama highlighted “military style” weapons.
This could include features like a pistol grip, which allows a weapon to be fired from the hip; a collapsible or collapsible stock that allows the weapon to be shortened and possibly hidden; a lightning suppressor that prevents the user of the weapon from being blinded by muzzle flash; a muzzle brake that reduces recoil; and a threaded barrel that can accommodate a muffler or a muffler. Bayonet lugs or grenade launchers are sometimes also included.
However, there is disagreement about which features are worrying enough to include in a ban. And existing government bans differ in how many functions they allow.
Proponents of a ban on assault weapons argue that the military features were intended to improve the killing ability of firearms.
But many gun owners argue that they are just “cosmetic”. Owners reeled off brands and models of firearms – Saiga and Remington rifles, for example – that are mechanically identical to the banned weapons, but without pistol grips or other styling features.
Previous attempts to ban these weapons have proven problematic. Loopholes in the federal government’s 1994 ban on assault weapons render it practically useless, many believe. And even in countries with meticulously written bans, manufacturers have managed to find ways to circumvent the restrictions.
In the end, said George Lakoff, professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, the arguments often boil down to language. “Whatever language you use about guns, it’s going to be a problem because it’s not just about guns, it’s about personal identity,” he said.
However, as Mr Peterson noted in his Buying Guide, it has been the industry that has used the term “assault weapon” to describe some types of semi-automatic firearms that are marketed to civilians.
“Assault rifle” was first used to describe a military weapon, the assault rifle, made by the Germans during World War II. The assault rifle – literally “assault rifle”, a name chosen by Adolf Hitler – was capable of both semi-automatic and fully automatic fire. It was the forerunner of many modern military rifles.
But the term “assault rifle” was expanded and expanded as weapon manufacturers began selling firearms to civilians based on the model of the new military rifles. In 1984 Guns & Ammo promoted a book called “Assault Firearms” which it said was “full of the hottest hardware available today.”
“The popular notion that the term ‘assault weapon’ was used by activists, media representatives or politicians is wrong,” wrote Peterson. “The term was first adopted by manufacturers, wholesalers, importers, and dealers in the American arms industry to stimulate sales of certain weapons whose appearance was unknown to many gun owners. The manufacturers and gun authors at the time needed a memorable name to identify this new type of gun. “