Over the past three decades, the idea of banning “assault weapons” has gained traction not because this policy has significant potential to save lives, but because proponents promise that such a ban will save lives without infringing on the rights of hunters or those who keep handguns for home defense. Alas, this promise is based on misconceptions and wishful thinking.
Although “assault weapons” are frequently referred to as “weapons of war,” the reality is that the military assault rifles (a term not synonymous with “assault weapon”) found on the battlefields of Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Ukraine are not available in American sporting goods stores. Military assault rifles are machine guns capable of fully automatic fire. That means that as long as you hold down the trigger, they will continue to fire bullet after bullet — at a rate of 10 to 15 bullets per second — until you release the trigger or run out of ammunition.
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Civilian “assault weapons,” on the other hand, are semi-automatic only, meaning they fire just one bullet each time you pull the trigger, resulting in a maximum rate of fire of approximately two rounds per second. In America, this distinction between fully automatic and semi-automatic is what has separated military and civilian firearms since the passage of the National Firearms Act of 1934. The ability to switch between semi-automatic and fully automatic modes is what has defined military assault rifles since Germany unveiled the first one during World War II.
Assault-style rifles have the same rate of fire as the semi-automatic rifles and shotguns used by many hunters, and as the semi-automatic handguns owned by most Americans who keep a gun for home defense.
Assault-style rifles are not designed to spray bullets. They have a military style in the same sense that a camouflage bikini has a military style — both may look “military,” but neither is actually used by any military.
In recent years much has been made of the fact that a bullet fired from a typical AR-15 does significantly more tissue damage than a bullet fired from a typical handgun. This line of reasoning ignores three pertinent facts.
First, the AR-15 is a modular firearm that can be configured to fire a variety of ammunitions, including small-caliber handgun ammunition. Second, there are many non-assault weapons that fire the same 5.56mm and .223-caliber ammunition as the typical AR-15.
If the concern is the power of the ammunition, it would make more sense to target the ammunition, not the gun. However, this wouldn’t affect “assault weapons” such as the infamous AK-47, which fires slower ammunition, but it would affect some sporting rifles, such as the popular Mini-14 Ranch Rifle. This would also raise the question of whether popular hunting ammunition should also be banned.
The 5.56mm and .223-caliber ammunition fired by the typical AR-15 is a medium-caliber round. Most hunting rifles fire large-caliber ammunition, which is significantly more powerful and more devastating to living tissue. Therefore, if the focus of the ban is to target the most powerful guns, the ban would need to include most hunting rifles.
The third fact ignored by the assertion that assault-style rifles are too powerful is that, according to a 2018 study by Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a gunshot wound from a handgun is just as likely as a gunshot wound from a semi-automatic rifle to be fatal in the close quarters of a typical mass shooting. And if the debate over “assault weapons” is about anything, it’s about mass shootings.
As of Dec. 7, 2022, the Gun Violence Archive had documented 622 U.S. mass shootings. Mother Jones had documented 12 mass-casualty active-shooter incidents — the kind of mass shooting that makes national news — in 2022, for an average of just over one a month, with an average of six persons killed and nine persons injured per incident.
Rifles of any kind, not just assault-style rifles, are used in 3% of all U.S. gun homicides, and this percentage is likely representative of the everyday mass shootings documented by the Gun Violence Archive. According to the Mother Jones data, “assault weapons,” including “assault-style” pistols, are used in approximately a third of mass-casualty active-shooter incidents.
The worst school shooting in U.S. history, the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, was carried out with a pair of handguns, as was the 1991 Luby’s massacre in Killeen, Texas. These two shootings are the third and sixth deadliest in U.S. history, respectively. Simply put, there is no reason to assume that the mass shootings carried out with “assault weapons” would be significantly less deadly if carried out with semi-automatic handguns or semi-automatic hunting rifles.
From 2015 to 2019, rifles of any kind were used to commit an average of 315 homicides per year. That’s an average of 2.16% of all U.S. homicides. Almost one and a half times as many people were killed with blunt objects, more than twice as many people were beaten to death with bare hands, and almost five times as many people were stabbed to death.
It’s time to stop looking for a simple solution to a complex problem. There are gun control measures that would save countless lives and that should be implemented at both the state and federal level. However, a ban on “assault weapons” isn’t one of them.
W. Scott Lewis was a founding board member of Students for Concealed Carry. Between 2007 and 2017 he worked at SCC in various capacities, including national media coordinator and Texas legislative director. He has since worked with organizations and promoted policies on both sides of the gun-rights debate.