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Semi-Automatic Firearms and the “Assault Weapon” Issue Overview

Friday, February 15, 2013

Semi-automatic firearms were introduced more than a century ago. The first semi-automatic rifle was introduced in 1885, the first semi-automatic pistol in 1892, and the first semi-automatic shotgun in 1902.1 Semi-automatics account for about 20 percent of the 300 million privately-owned firearms in the United States and the percentage is quickly rising, because semi-automatics now account for about 50 percent of all new firearms bought annually. Americans bought about five million new semi-automatics in 2012.2

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). Semi-automatics are not “high-powered” compared to other firearms. Semi-automatic rifles and shotguns use the same ammunition as many other rifles and shotguns, and semi-automatic handguns use ammunition that is shaped differently at the cartridge case base, as compared to revolver ammunition, but which is comparable in power.

Semi-automatics are used for the same purposes as other firearms, including self-defense, hunting, and recreational and competitive target shooting. As examples, semi-automatics are the only rifles used in the annual National Rifle Matches, and the semi-automatic AR-15 is the rifle most commonly used for marksmanship competition and training in the United States.3

Semi-automatics that gun control supporters call “assault weapons” cannot “spray fire,” they aren’t designed to be fired “from the hip,” they aren’t “easy to convert” into machine guns, and they’re not used by the military or by terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq.4 Contrary to the absurd claims of former handgun ban advocate, now semi-automatic rifle and shotgun ban advocate, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), they’re not “weapons of mass destruction,” there are no devices that allow them to be converted into machine guns legally, and they aren’t equipped with “grenade launchers” and “rocket launchers.”5

Gun control activists began campaigning against “assault weapons” in the late 1980s, after they realized that their previous campaign to get handguns banned had failed. In 1988, handgun ban activist Josh Sugarmann recommended to other gun control groups:

[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.6

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.7 California banned “assault weapons” in 1989, and New Jersey banned “assault firearms” in 1990, including the Marlin Model 60 .22 caliber squirrel rifle. Both states allowed owners to register and keep banned guns already owned, but only about 10 percent of owners complied.8 Other states subsequently banned “assault weapons” (Connecticut, 1993; Massachusetts, 1998; New York, 2000, expanded in 2013; or “assault pistols” (Hawaii, 1992; Maryland, 1994).

President Bill Clinton campaigned for a federal “assault weapon” ban proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.,), saying people “can’t be so fixated on our desire to preserve the rights of ordinary Americans.”9 Crime reports and felon surveys showed that “assault weapons” were used in only 1-2 percent of violent crimes, and in the 10 preceding years murders committed without guns outnumbered those with “assault weapons” by about 37-to-1.10

Nevertheless, Feinstein’s ban on new manufacture of “assault weapons” and magazines that hold 11 or more rounds was imposed from 1994 to 2004. It 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, leading the radically anti-gun Violence Policy Center to describe the “badly flawed ban” as a “joke,” a “charade,” and a “fictional ban,” and to say “you cannot argue with a straight face that the ban has been effective.”11

In the November 1994 elections, a number of Democrats who supported the ban were voted out of office and Republicans took control of Congress. Clinton blamed the NRA.12

As the scheduled 2004 expiration of the ban approached, gun control supporters campaigned to have the ban not only extended, but also expanded, the Brady Campaign calling California’s ban the “model for the nation.”13 In fact, California’s murder rate had increased every year for five years after its 1989 ban, 26 percent overall, while in the rest of the country murder increased 10 percent, and during the first five years after California expanded its ban in 2000, the state’s murder rate increased 10 percent, compared to a five percent decrease in the rest of country.14

Meanwhile, a congressionally-mandated study of the federal ban 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.15

A follow-up study concluded “AWs and LCMs were used in only a minority of gun crimes prior to the 1994 federal ban,” “relatively few attacks involve more than 10 shots fired,” AWs were used in a particularly small percentage of gun crimes,” and “the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.”16

Another follow-up study found “gunshot injury incidents involving pistols [many of which use magazines that hold 11 or more 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.”17 Thus, Congress rejected gun control supporters’ demand that the ban be extended beyond 2004.

Since 1991, when the House of Representatives rejected an “assault weapon” ban by 70 votes, the numbers of “assault weapons” and magazines that hold more than 10 rounds have risen dramatically to all-time highs. There are now millions or tens of millions of “assault weapons,” depending on which of Sen. Feinstein’s definitions one uses, and certainly many tens of millions of magazines that hold 11 or more rounds. Concurrently the nation’s murder rate has decreased by 52 percent to a 48-year low, nearly the lowest point in U.S. history.18

Nevertheless, in 2013 Feinstein introduced the biggest proposed gun and magazine ban in American history. Whereas her 1994 ban banned 19 firearms by name, her new bill would ban 157. Whereas her 1994 ban banned detachable-magazine semi-automatic rifles and semi-automatic shotguns only if they had two or more attachments, such as a protruding pistol grip, adjustable-length stock, or flash suppressor, her new bill would ban the firearms for having any “characteristic that can function as a grip.” It would also ban various fixed magazine rifles and self-defense handguns, and prohibit anyone from selling or otherwise transferring a magazine that holds 11 or more rounds. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and Million Mom March have proposed that pump-action firearms be banned as “assault weapons” too.19

 

Notes:

1. Rifle, a Mannlicher; pistol, a Schoenberger; shotgun, the Browning Auto-5.
2. See Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig, “Guns in America” (1996); and BATFE, Annual Firearm Manufacturer and Export Reports, and “Firearm Commerce in the United States 2011.”
3. Discussed on www.GunBanFacts.com.
4. See Violence Policy Center, “Bullet Hoses: Semiautomatic assault weapons: What are they? What’s so bad about them?” and Brady Campaign, “Assault Weapons: ‘Mass Produced Mayhem,’” Oct. 2008, pp. 10-11.
5. “[W]eapons of war have no place on the streets of our communities. . . . [W]e need to classify semiautomatic weapons as those of mass destruction . . . . The time to impose a national ban on the sale, manufacture, and possession of all semiautomatic weapons of war that flood our streets is at hand,” Congressional Record, July 29, 1993. Beginning a 8:53 in C-Span, Senators Feinstein and Blumenthal React to NRA, Dec. 21, 2012, Feinstein says that she looked at publications in 1993 and 2012, that guns today are “more sophisticated and technologically advanced,” and that “there are even devices which can be put in them legally, which make them fully-automatic.” The claims are false. Federal law prohibits converting a firearm to fire fully-automatically. Her bill S. 150 defines a semi-automatic rifle as an “assault weapon” if it has a “grenade launcher” or a “rocket launcher,” devices restricted under the National Firearms Act and obviously not part of a semi-automatic firearm.
6. Violence Policy Center, “Assault Weapons and Accessories in America,” chapter 2 and “Conclusion.”
7. See discussion of BATF 1989 importation ban on www.GunBanFacts.com.
8. See discussion of California’s and New Jersey’s bans on www.GunBanFacts.com.
9. Ann Devroy, “President Rebukes Rifle Association; Group’s Opposition to Virginia, New Jersey Gun Controls Criticized,” Washington Post, March 2, 1993, p. A9.
10. Dave Kopel, “Rational Basis Analysis of ‘Assault Weapon’ Prohibition,” Journal of Contemporary Law, 1994, beginning after the appearance of footnote 86 in the text, and FBI, Supplementary Homicide Reports.
11. VPC press release, “Senate-Passed Assault Weapons ‘Ban’ Will Do Little to Keep Assault Weapons Off Our Streets: Violence Policy Center (VPC) Warns: “Political Victory’ Will Not Adequately Protect Police, Public,” March 2, 2004; VPC flyer, “Why Merely Renewing the Current Assault Weapons ‘Ban’ Will Not Stop the Sale of Assault Weapons,” no date; and R. Montgomery, “Clock ticking on assault gun ban: Flaws put extension in doubt,” Kansas City Star, May 2, 2004, p. A1.
12. “A Conversation with President Bill Clinton, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Jan. 14, 1995. For more information, www.GunBanFacts.com.
13. Brady Campaign’s “Assault Weapons in America: Military Guns in Civilian Hands” (no date, removed from Brady’s website, but on file with NRA-ILA) and “Assault Weapons: Mass Produced Mayhem,” Oct. 2008, p. 20.
14. See FBI Uniform Crime Reports Section Data Tool.
15. Jeffrey A. Roth, Christopher S. Koper, “Impact Evaluation of the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act of 1994, Urban Institute, March 13, 1997.
16. Christopher S. Koper, “An Updated Assessment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban: Impacts on Gun Markets and Gun Violence, 1994-2003,” Report to the National Institute of Justice, June 2004.
17. Reedy and Koper, “Impact of handgun types on gun assault outcomes,” Injury Prevention, Sept. 2003.
18. Note 14.
19. LCPGV, LCAV Model Law to Ban Assault Weapons, 2004; “Million moms”: Donna Dees-Thomases and Carolynne Jarvis, “Why wait to tackle gun violence: Germany’s timely action should serve as example for America,” Detroit Free Press, Aug. 8, 2002. As reported on National Review Online, despite the group’s name, the “million moms” fell about 999,000 moms short for its Mother’s Day “March” on Washington, D.C., three months before the federal “assault weapons” ban expired. But, “marchers who did show up, though, had a lot to say,” generally favored a total ban on private ownership of all firearms, and some referred to President George W. Bush as a “whore” and “terrorist.”

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