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Semi-Automatic Firearms and the “Assault Weapon” Issue

Friday, June 3, 2011

Semi-automatic firearms were introduced more than a century ago. They account for about 15 percent of the 250+ million privately-owned firearms in the United States. They are used for the same purposes that other firearms are, including self-defense, hunting, and recreational and competitive target shooting.

Semi-automatics fire only one shot when the trigger is pulled—like revolvers, bolt-actions, lever-actions, pump-actions, double-barrels and all other types of firearms except fully-automatics (machine guns). Contrary to gun control supporters’ claims, semi-automatics can’t "spray fire," they aren’t designed to be fired "from the hip," they aren’t "easy to convert" into machine guns, they aren’t "high-powered" compared to other firearms, and those that gun control supporters call "assault weapons" aren’t used by the military or by terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq, and they’re not designed with silencers.

Nevertheless, in 1988, handgun ban activist Josh Sugarmann recommended that gun control groups campaign against "assault weapons" to bolster their long-standing efforts to ban handguns, and that they try to trick the public into believing that "assault weapons" were fully-automatic machine guns used by the military. Sugarmann wrote:

[A]ssault weapons . . . will . . . strengthen the handgun restriction lobby . . . . [H]andgun restriction consistently remains a non-issue with the vast majority of legislators, the press, and public. . . . Assault weapons . . . are a new topic. The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun—can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons. . . . Efforts to restrict assault weapons are more likely to succeed than those to restrict handguns.

Sugarmann also recommended that the BATF adopt guidelines to prohibit the importation of "assault weapons." The following year, the BATF banned the importation of 43 models of "assault-type" semi-automatic rifles that it had previously approved for importation. Also in 1989, California banned "assault weapons." In 1990, New Jersey banned "assault firearms." Both states allowed owners to register and keep banned guns already owned, but only about 10 percent of owners complied. Other states subsequently banned "assault weapons" (Connecticut, 1993; Massachusetts, 1998; New York, 2000; or "assault pistols" (Hawaii, 1992; Maryland, 1994). The Brady Campaign calls California’s ban the "model for the nation," though California’s murder rate increased every year for five years after its 1989 ban, 26 percent overall, while in the rest of the country murder increased 11 percent.

President Bill Clinton campaigned for a federal "assault weapon" ban, saying people "can’t be so fixated on our desire to preserve the rights of ordinary Americans." A ban on new manufacture of "assault weapons" and ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds was imposed from 1994 to 2004. The law allowed the same firearms to be made without attachments such as a flash suppressor or folding stock, and allowed the importation of over 50 million magazines that held more than 10 rounds. In the November elections of 1994, a number of Democrats who supported the ban were voted out of office and Republicans took control of Congress until January 2007.

A study of the ban, mandated by Congress, concluded, "the banned guns were never used in more than a modest fraction of all gun murders" before the ban, and the ban’s 10-round limit on new magazines wasn’t a factor in multiple-victim or multiple-wound crimes. A follow-up study found "gunshot injury incidents involving pistols [many of which use magazines that hold more than 10 rounds] were less likely to produce a death than those involving revolvers [which typically hold five or six rounds]" and "the average number of wounds for pistol victims was actually lower than that for revolver victims." Crime reports and felon surveys showed that "assault weapons" were used in only 1-2 percent of violent crimes before the ban; crime victim surveys indicated the figure was 0.25 percent. In the 10 years before the ban, murders committed without guns outnumbered those with "assault weapons" by about 37-to-1. There are more "assault weapons" and magazines that hold more than 10 rounds than ever before, and the nation’s murder rate is at a 47-year low, having decreased 52 percent since 1991.

Bills introduced by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) in 2003, 2005 and 2007 would have banned every gun banned in 1994, plus guns made to comply with the ban; guns exempted by the ban; fixed-magazine, semi-automatic, center-fire rifles holding more than 10 rounds; semi-automatic shotguns; detachable-magazine semi-automatic rifles; and any semi-automatic shotgun or rifle an Attorney General one day claimed isn’t "sporting." The bills would have also reinstated and expanded the ban on magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.

Bills have been introduced in some states to ban pump-action firearms as "assault weapons." That idea, conceived by Donna Dees-Thomases, the founder of the Million Mom March and a friend of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is urged by the Legal Community Against Violence, which has drafted a "model" assault weapon bill to be used in state legislatures.

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