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"Assault Weapons" 2009

Friday, March 27, 2009

“Until we ban all of them, then we might as well ban none.”

-- The late Sen. Howard Metzenbaum

A couple of years ago, I spent a great fall day hunting quail in Georgia. The birds were plentiful, the weather was good and the dogs were outstanding. But that day, I also spent hours debating one of my fellow hunters on a legislative issue. It’s one that may or may not surprise you.

The issue was the semi-automatic firearms that anti-gun groups call “assault weapons,” and my companion couldn’t see why NRA is against banning them. And he wasn’t just any hunter. In fact, he was a federal judge--an intelligent and educated man who, some day, might hold a gun owner’s fate in his hands. You might have had the same conversation with friends of yours, so I want to share a few thoughts that could help you show them why we have to fight these bans.

First and foremost, this issue is about commonly owned firearms that are used for lawful purposes by millions of Americans every day. Our opponents’ long-term goal, on the other hand, is to ensure that no American can legally own or use any firearm for any purpose.

They reveal that goal in their legislation. These bills aren’t just about “AK-47s and Uzis” anymore.

Legislation to require a federal license to possess any detachable-magazine, semi-automatic rifle or shotgun, or any handgun, has been introduced in Congress. Legislation to reimpose the federal “assault weapon” and “large capacity” magazine ban of 1994, or an even broader ban--both introduced in the last two congresses--is sure to follow. And legislation to ban all semi-automatic and pump-action firearms, starting with those that use detachable magazines, has been pro-posed in the past and may not be far behind.

The semi-automatic firearm and handgun licensing bill--H.R. 45--is the work of U.S. Representative and Illinois Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Rush, D-Ill. When active with the Panthers, Rep. Rush spent six months in jail on weapons charges. More recently, Rush, who supports a total ban on the private possession of handguns, has said “guns don’t belong in a civilized society.”

Whether Rush’s bill, or other legislation to ban all semi-automatics and pump-actions, will become law may depend in part on whether the 1994 ban is reimposed, a position supported by President Obama. But whether the 1994 ban is reimposed, or U.S. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy’s, D-N.Y., “assault weapon ban on steroids” is imposed instead, will depend, in part, upon how well you and I make our case to the American people, including some gun owners who so far haven’t cared what gun is banned so long as it’s not one of theirs.

“Defeating any new ban will depend, in part, upon how well you and I make our case to the American people, including some gun owners who so far haven’t cared what gun is banned, so long as it’s not theirs.”


But it could be “one of theirs” sooner than they think. Since the federal “assault weapon” and “large magazine” ban was imposed in 1994, gun control supporters have learned that they cannot get much of a ban by finding photographs of guns that look more like an AK-47 than a Winchester Model 94 and then persuading anti-gun politicians to include those guns in the next “assault weapon” bill they introduce.

They still talk about “AK-47s,” knowing most reporters will latch onto the term. But after years of attacking NRA for pointing out that all semi-automatics operate the same way--one shot at a time--it dawned on the Violence Policy Center (VPC) that we were right. VPC now admits “most of the design features listed in the 1994 federal ban--such as bayonet mounts, grenade launchers and flash sup-pressors--have nothing to do with [how a firearm operates].”

“Armed” with that know-ledge, VPC and the like-minded Legal Community Against Violence (LCAV) now advocate legislation that defines a firearm as an “assault weapon,” less on the basis of its attachments and more on the basis of its action and (as in Rep. Rush’s licensing bill) its use of a detachable magazine.

The federal ban of 1994 pales in comparison to the ones proposed by McCarthy, VPC and LCAV. But as poorly written as it was, even the 1994 ban took into account the single fact that will ultimately force gun control supporters to push for a ban on all detachable-magazine firearms: Any firearm that uses a detachable magazine can use one of any size.

Our adversaries know that they will eventually have to define the term “assault weapon” by the same approach the National Firearms Act uses to define the term “machine gun”--entirely on the basis of a firearm’s action, without regard for its magazine type or capacity. The late Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, who introduced the first “assault weapon” ban in Congress in 1989, summed it up when he said, “Until we ban all of them, then we might as well ban none.”

The only silver lining is that this should put an end to the comments I’ve heard from a (thankfully) small number of gun owners over the years, that they don’t have to worry about a ban because their rifles and shotguns don’t have the military look, they aren’t semi-automatic or they don’t use detachable magazines. I suspect I won’t hear that now--not because those few people have come to realize there’s no honor in leaving your fellow gun owners to the wolves, but because they realize that their guns’ action types or magazines may no longer exempt them from an “assault weapon” ban.

Should we have to defend semi-automatic and pump-action firearms commonly used for self-defense and other legitimate purposes? Of course not. But in a democracy, what ultimately counts are the opinions of our fellow citizens. And when someone wants to know why we oppose an “assault weapon” and “large magazine” ban, we have a lot of reasons to offer.

For starters, when Congress imposed the ban in 1994, it required a study of the ban’s effect. The resulting study concluded, “the banned weapons and magazines were never used in more than a small fraction of all gun murders.” To put things in perspective, state and local police reports have shown that “assault weapons” are used in about one percent of murders, but more than 30 percent of murders are committed without any kind of firearm whatsoever.

Even the VPC admits that the ban had no effect on crime. Violent crime started falling in 1991, three years before the ban was imposed, and has continued to fall since the ban expired.

“Our opponents’ long-term goal, on the other hand, is to ensure that no American can legally own or use any firearm for any purpose.”


Today, no matter whose definition you use, there are more “assault weapons” than ever before, but the nation’s murder rate is at a 43-year low. The Brady Campaign’s prediction that murder rates would rocket to the stratosphere if the ban expired was flat wrong.

And as you should know, but your non-gun-owning friends probably don’t, the guns our opponents call “assault weapons” are not “high-powered” when compared to other firearms. They use the same ammunition as many other firearms and none is as powerful as many rifles used for deer hunting. An AK-47, for instance, is less powerful than a .30-30 Winchester. The AR-15 uses a cartridge derived from, and nearly identical to, the .223 Remington.

Just mentioning the AR-15 sends gun control supporters into fits, but it is the most commonly used rifle for marksmanship training and competition in the United States. It is popular as a varmint-hunting rifle and in carbine configuration. It is also increasingly popular for home protection.

Since federal law requires a rifle or shotgun to be at least 26 inches long, regardless of its stock, a folding or telescoping stock does not make a rifle or shotgun “concealable.” The AR-15 carbine’s telescoping stock allows the gun’s length of pull to be adjusted to a shooter’s physique and clothing.

An AR-15 or comparable rifle with a pistol-type grip separate from its stock does so out of necessity. The stocks on such rifles are higher, relative to the bore, than on rifles with traditional pistol-grip stocks in order to reduce muzzle climb due to recoil. And the grips are shaped like a pistol’s for one reason: comfort.

By definition, a rifle or shotgun is designed to be fired from the shoulder; that’s why it has a shoulder stock and sights. No rifle is designed to be fired “from the hip.” And no matter how often the TV news runs footage of machine guns being fired during stories on semi-automatic firearms, a semi-automatic isn’t a machine gun and it doesn’t “spray fire.”

Ultimately, despite all the propaganda about “AK-47s and Uzis,” the real issue is about limiting the use of firearms--especially handguns--for self-defense. After all, consider the sources. The groups that led the charge for an “assault weapon” ban were originally formed to ban handguns.

The year before “assault weapons” became a national issue, VPC (known at the time as “New Right Watch”) urged anti-gun groups to use the issue to “strengthen the handgun restriction lobby.” 

Just as gun-ban groups have sought ever broader classes of guns to ban, it is also no accident that the magazine ban imposed along with the federal “assault weapon” ban applied to magazines for all guns.

Most firearms designed to use magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, which the ban termed “large,” are conventional handguns carried and kept at home for self-defense--the type of guns that anti-gun groups most strongly oppose.

The “assault weapons” issue is a key element of anti-gun groups’ efforts to undermine the Second Amendment. They hope to demonize one class of guns at a time, both to condition the public to ever-broader bans and to turn gun owners against one another politically.

To defeat their “divide and conquer” strategy, we must all stick together, regardless of which guns we personally own.


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Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.