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The Politics of Futility and the False Promise of the “Assault Weapons” Ban

Monday, December 11, 2023

The Politics of Futility and the False Promise of the “Assault Weapons” Ban

Last week saw another episode in the dismal political theatre that surrounds gun control in America, as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) made a phony attempt to resurrect a failed, 30-year-old “assault weapons” ban in the Senate by unanimous consent. Needless to say, no idea could be less universally embraced in politics today than the wisdom or necessity of bringing back a law that infringed on the rights of Americans without actually delivering on its promise of protecting the public. The stunt failed, as its proponents knew it would, thanks to the objection of pro-gun Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo). But it served its purpose, allowing anti-gun Democrats to feign horror over the supposed callousness of the pro-gun GOP and generating stories expanding on that narrative among a press corps that has devolved to little more than a public relations apparatus of the Democrat party. It was a perfect illustration of the politics of futility, the goal of which isn’t to solve problems but merely to blame one’s political opponents for failing to take actions that wouldn’t help anyway.

Anti-gun Democrats have decided to stake one of their biggest political issues on a lie: that “assault weapons” are at the root of America’s “gun violence epidemic” and that banning them will fix it. The problem with this isn’t just its inherent dishonesty, it’s that it causes real harm. It makes a strawman of their political opponents they can use to stoke animosity and division. Worse, however, it diverts attention from problems caused or worsened by their own favored policies, resulting in real harm to vulnerable people they claim to care about and represent. Americans should reject this deeply cynical charade and demand, not just their constitutional right to the firearms of their choice, but real solutions to the serious and persistent problem of crime.

There are many advantages the “assault weapons” issue provides to cynical politicians who are more concerned about wielding power than actually accomplishing anything beneficial.

First, the term “assault weapon” itself has no fixed meaning. In general, it has been applied to two categories of firearms. One is based on the way the firearms look, with any hint of a military esthetic potentially condemning a gun to this label. Taken to its extreme, this tendency has even led a leading gun control advocate to hyperventilate over a bolt action, .22 rimfire rife (the functional equivalent of a squirrel gun). More recently, however, it has been applied to modern repeating firearms because of their ability to, well, function efficiently. This has resulted in a bill that purports to ban all “gas-operated semi-automatic firearms” before exempting a few of the supposedly least objectionable ones (a large portion of which exist mainly in the imagination of the bill’s author because no intelligent person would want a gun of that description). The lack of transparency and specificity in the term’s definition is not a drawback but in fact the point, because it allows the category to be endlessly expanded once the concept of banning such firearms gains acceptance. This is why Joe Biden’s own chief gun control official insists that a ban on “assault weapons” would be a good idea, while admitting that he doesn’t actually know how to define the term.

Second, firearms that are accused of being “assault weapons” are immensely popular with the general public. This is illustrated by the AR-15, a gun that fits into both of the above categories of supposedly extra-malevolent firearms. One of the few things that people who love and hate guns agree on is that the AR-15 is wildly popular with the gun-owning public, with even the gun-hating Washington Post admitting that about 1 in 20 American adults own at least 1 AR-15. The benefit of attempting to ban a popular gun is that opposition to the idea is assured, with politicians who support the rights of gun owners therefore committed to opposition as well. This sets up an appealing David and Goliath dynamic for ban supporters, while also excusing their perpetual failure to achieve that goal on a national level. They get to score political points for supporting the concept without having to fear the accountability of accomplishing it.

A third benefit of targeting “assault weapons” is that it’s the political gift that keeps giving. Anti-gun politicians return to the “assault weapons” issue again and again, just as movie studios milk popular film franchises. Even in the few jurisdictions that have enacted “assault weapons” bans, the law’s initial passage is always treated as merely a “good first step.” Thereafter, its proponents will get to claim credit for defending it in court, expanding it, offering “buybacks” of banned guns, revoking previous grandfather clauses, promoting it as a national model, etc., etc. All along the way, if the law (as it inevitably does) fails to deliver as promised, it’s not because the concept is flawed or the law is a failure but because the “realities of politics” force an incremental approach that prevents the law’s full genius and effectiveness from being realized or because the policy has not yet been uniformly enforced throughout the United States. The important point is that the law’s ineffectiveness is never a reason to abandon the concept but always to double down and expand it.

The fourth political benefit to supporting assault weapons bans is because these sorts of guns are accused of an exaggerated role in an equally slippery, emotional, and misunderstood concept, “mass shootings.” An endlessly repeated talking point is that “assault rifles are the weapons of choice for mass shooters.” But, like “assault weapon” itself, the term “mass shooting” has no fixed or universally accepted meaning; it can expand and contract in any way necessary to achieve the desired narrative. For example, non-fatal episodes involving the discharge of a firearm and as few as three injured people who were not even necessarily hit by gunfire can be a “mass shooting” if the point is to inflate their frequency to argue for the necessity of an “assault weapons” ban. But the term can also be defined more strictly (for example, requiring a threshold number of fatalities caused by gunshot wounds in a single event in a public place) to argue that jurisdictions with “assault weapons” bans have a lower occurrence of “mass shootings.” Yet mention of the term “mass shooting” will inevitably invoke in the mind of the casual observer the type of notorious tragedies that grab headlines, even though these are so rare that the chance of succumbing to one is on par with a fatal lightning strike. Thus, marrying the two terms together heaps misunderstanding upon misunderstanding, or – less charitably – lie upon lie. 

Ironically, the dishonesty of the “assault weapons” charade was recently underscored by an executive at one of America’s longest-surviving firearm prohibition lobbies, currently branded as Brady. “This [the recently introduced ban on gas-operated semi-automatic firearms] will not prevent mass shootings because you can’t prevent mass shootings in a free society where everyone has access to a firearm,” Mark Collins, director of federal affairs at Brady, told the press.

Collins, of course, is correct on this point. But his articulation of the conundrum suggests his answer to it: an increasingly less free society where increasingly fewer people have less access to fewer available guns. He went on to say: “But what it can do is, it can significantly mitigate the damage that someone could do in a targeted mass attack.” Putting aside the factual inaccuracy of that statement, its logic inevitably demands the banning of all guns for all people by any means necessary to do it, however much that process tramples upon freedom. There is no such thing as acceptable “damage” from a “targeted mass attack.” Thus, if the solution is to ban guns, they will all have to eventually go.

As long as anti-gun Democrats can blame “assault weapons” and their supporters for America’s ills, they don’t have to focus on how their own failures – including “criminal justice reform,” demonizing law enforcement, and open borders – have contributed to the problem of violent crime. Voters, however, should not play that game; rather, they should demand real solutions to increase public safety.

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