Gun Control Debate Part Two: What is an assault rifle?

In the last section we asked, “What are reasonable restrictions on firearms?”

The responses look something like this:

Certain types of weapon, like “assault weapons”, should be more restricted, possibly even banned since there is no practical civilian need or use for them.

Handguns and “assault weapons” have no purpose but to kill people and should be banned.

To permit the possession of merciless killing machines shooting 60 bullets per second in our country is un-American.

Civilians have no business owning “assault weapons, military style weapons, weapons of war, or military grade weapons.”

Let’s begin with the legalities of the arguments and go from there. Again from Heller:

“(f) None of the Court’s precedents forecloses the Court’s interpre­tation. Neither United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U. S. 542, 553, nor Presser v. Illinois, 116 U. S. 252, 264–265, refutes the individual-rights interpretation. United States v. Miller, 307 U. S. 174, does not limit the right to keep and bear arms to militia purposes, but rather limits the type of weapon to which the right applies to those used by the militia, i.e., those in common use for lawful purposes. Pp. 47–54.”

What this says is that the express purpose of the Second Amendment is to defend the right of the individual to maintain arms for militia purposes. To own the same weapons that the average US Army or Marine Corps rifleman carries into combat, i.e an M-4 or M-16 rifle. However, the issue military rifle is select-fire meaning that it can be fired either as a semi-automatic or in either a three-round burst or fully automatic mode depending on the model of the rifle and the military unit that issues it. These weapons are already incredibly expensive for the average citizen to own.

For the uninitiated semi-automatic means that a weapon will fire once when the trigger is squeezed.  The trigger must be released and squeezed again to fire another round. Three-round burst means that the weapon will fire three rounds every time the trigger is squeezed and automatic means that the weapon will fire continuously as long the trigger is squeezed and there is ammunition feeding into the weapon. For legal purposes any weapon that can fire in burst or fully automatic mode is considered an automatic weapon.

For the sake of clarity, assault rifles are defined as: “a selective fire rifle that uses an intermediate cartridge and a detachable magazine.” The average American gun owner does not have an assault rifle because of the lack of select fire capability. Also contrary to popular opinion, automatic weapons are not illegal in the US. The National Firearms Acts of 1934 and 1968 impose an excise tax on certain weapons, namely automatic weapons, short-barreled rifles, short- barreled shotguns, and suppressors. For legal purposes a short-barreled rifle is a rifle with a barrel length of less than 16 inches or an overall length of less than 26 inches. A short-barreled shotgun is a shotgun with a barrel length of less than 18 inches or an overall length of less than 26 inches.  In addition to the excise tax these weapons must be registered with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

Automatic weapons are not illegal but are prohibitively expensive because the only ones that are transferable must have been manufactured prior to May 19th of 1986. Because the number of legal automatic weapons is artificially static and relatively small they have become extremely expensive. A legally transferable (meaning that one can sell it to someone else) automatic M-16 can sell for between $15,000 and $18,000. A similar rifle manufactured for the military or police costs in-between $600-$1000.

Let’s talk for a moment about rates of fire. Rate of fire is the frequency at which a specific weapon can fire, usually measured in rounds per minute or RPM. Please note, this is a mechanical property that measures how fast a weapon cycles, i.e loads, locks, fires, unlocks and ejects a round. It is in no way a measure of how fast a weapon can be operated because it does not take into account ammunition capacity, aiming the weapon, heat generation, or wear on parts. Rate of fire is not the rate at which a weapon can actually be fired in the same way that the highest number on your car’s speedometer is not how fast it can go. The rate of fire of an automatic M-4 carbine is 700-950 RPM. This leads the ignorant to claim that civilians own rifles that can fire “60 rounds a second.” Ridiculous, it is impossible for a semi-automatic rifle to fire 60 rounds in a second even excluding magazine changes.  A human being cannot pull the trigger that quickly; much less effectively use the rifle while attempting to do so.

The average American shooter typically owns an AR-15 (the AR stands for Armalite by the way, the original manufacturer; it does not stand for assault rifle or automatic rifle) which is a semi-automatic rifle modeled off of the M-16/M-4 series rifle. Folks of a more contrary disposition often own civilian legal AK-47’s or AK-74’s, also semi-automatic rifles. So, AR-15s/AK-47’s and other rifles of similar pattern are not assault rifles or assault weapons because they do not have a select fire capability. They are semi-automatic rifles, period.

Talk about “weapons of war,” is an attempt to elicit an emotional response by people who would likely shit their pants if they found themselves anywhere in the vicinity of an actual war. “Weapons of war,” include automatic weapons, belt-fed machine guns, grenade launchers, and preferably mortars, artillery, and air support; but not semi-automatic rifles. I have carried semi-automatic weapons into very dangerous places without feeling outgunned. However, that is because I was surrounded by people carrying multiple examples of actual “weapons of war.”

Continuing to call weapons that are in common use for lawful purposes “weapons of war, “ is at best willful ignorance and at worst an attempt to appeal to emotions in an effort to infringe upon the rights of the American people.  Some will make the argument that that the term “assault weapon,” is in common usage and is therefore commonly understood. However, words have meaning, especially words that are used to influence and form legislation. Most professionals believe that the term “assault weapon,” is constrained by the definition provided above. Others seem to believe that it means any gun that looks scary. These people literally use cosmetic features to arrive at an arbitrary definition of an assault weapon. Use of correct terminologies puts the debate on an equal footing and avoids miscommunications in any professional and well-informed discussion. Please educate yourself and use the correct terms.

Having said all of that, would I hesitate to carry my personal, semi-automatic AR-15 into a combat zone? No, I would not. I don’t plan on going to those places without several people that know what they are doing and are armed to the teeth. When I say I mean armed to the teeth with actual machine guns and grenade launchers at a minimum. In the United State it is a different story. I cannot keep a policeman in my pocket nor an Infantry squad in my bedroom. In the absence of automatic weapons a semi-automatic version of an M-4/M-16 is the next best thing. That is the point; it is a militia rifle which is the closest available weapon to what is widely issued to the military and to law enforcement agencies. It is the rifle hat the Second Amendment was written for.

The AR design is one of the most popular weapons platforms ever produced for several reasons. It is accurate, modular, adjustable to multiple shooters, easy and fun to shoot, low-recoil, available in multiple calibers, easy to tinker with and repair and relatively inexpensive to purchase. It can be adapted for almost any and all shooting and hunting event. In light of all of these attributes it is also an excellent self-defense tool.  Everyone’s living situation is different but an AR-platform rifle with the right ammunition would be at the top of my list for a home-defense weapon in almost any scenario.

If, as gun-control advocates commonly claim, these guns are only designed to kill people, why are they even issued to the police? The ONLY valid reason for police officers to have any firearm is for the defense of themselves and other law-abiding citizens. This is the same reason that citizens own firearms. Why should the police be able to own weapons that other civilians cannot?

Heller recognizes the right of citizens to own commonly available firearms or firearms in common usage.  Semi-auto firearms have been available to the public for well over a century.  The vast majority of the millions of handguns purchased each year are semi-auto pistols and the vast majority of semi-automatic pistols are designed for magazines holding more than ten rounds.  The AR-15, designed around 20 or 30 round magazines, has been available in gun stores since 1963 and there are now five million or more in private hands. That sounds like common usage. This is as is should be. The government does not have, and should not have, a monopoly on legitimate violence or the tools of that violence.

Guns are just that, tools. They can be used to give a weaker victim a fighting chance against a stronger attacker. It’s called self-defense, and it’s more than a Constitutional right. It is a natural human right. As long as there are people in the world that would use their strength to do evil to others, there is a moral imperative to acknowledge self-defense as a fundamental human right. There is also a moral imperative for individuals to defend their lives and the lives of their family with the most effective means available. To do less would be to defy nature and to endanger yourself and others.

“Assault magazines”, “high capacity magazines”, any magazine that holds more than a certain number of rounds should be banned for possession by average citizens.

Any person that believes that a “clip” is any part of a modern firearm is automatically telling me that they do not know what they are talking about. With only a single modern exception, “clips” are small pieces of metal that hold cartridges in a group to allow them to be loaded into magazines.  The exception is the en-bloc clip for the M1 Garand battle-rifle which is inserted into the rifle holding eight rounds and ejected when those rounds have been fired. Words have meaning, please educate yourself.

A magazine is a device designed to feed ammunition into a firearm. Some are fixed to the weapon and some are detachable. In modern firearms the most common type is the detachable box magazine. This type of magazine typically feeds ammunition in a single column or single stack, or double column, or double stack. There are numerous other types of magazines but most of the current debate seems to be centered on the acceptable capacity of detachable box magazines used in semi-automatic pistols and rifles.

First, a little history. The weapon that is widely acknowledged to be the first actual assault rifle (yes, it is select fire), the Sturmgewehr 44, was first put into production by Nazi Germany in 1944. “Sturmgewehr,” translates as “storm rifle,” or “assault rifle,” which is where the term originated. Its feeding device is a 30-round, detachable, box magazine. The AK-47 was first adopted for use by the Soviets in the early 1950s.  Its feeding device is a 30-round, detachable, box magazine. The M-16 was introduced to the US military in 1963 and became the standard issue service rifle by 1969. It was originally issued with a 20-round, detachable, box magazine.   The first 30-round M-16 magazines were issued to the military in small quantities in 1968-69, although some Special Operations Forces purchased them from the civilian market prior to that. 30 round magazines are currently standard issue to all US military personnel. They are also in standard usage by all federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies that issue the M-4/AR-15 pattern rifle. That means almost every law enforcement agency in the United States.

In case anyone missed my point; what are erroneously being called “high capacity,” or “assault,” magazines are actually standard capacity magazines. These 30 round magazines were designed specifically to go with the weapons they are intended for and have been in common usage for around seventy years. It would be more correct to call any smaller magazine a “low-capacity,” or “sub-standard,” magazine. I will use the term “high capacity,” in italics because it is a bunk term designed to hood-wink the uninformed.

Currently there are a plethora of state and local laws addressing the subject of magazine size. Each law has a different and totally arbitrary “acceptable,” number of rounds that a law-abiding citizen can load into their magazines. Apparently the “common-sense,” number is seven (New York), ten (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts), twelve (Chicago, Illinois) fifteen (Colorado, New Jersey, and Aurora, Illinois), twenty (Maryland), thirty (Ohio) or the intended capacity of the magazine, (every other state in the Union). What is it exactly that makes the eighth, eleventh, thirteenth, sixteenth, twenty-first or thirty first rounds evil? What is it that makes the arbitrary, legally-designated number of rounds, the absolute maximum amount of ammunition that law-abiding people will need for self-defense? What is it that makes any more ammunition an invitation for disaster? Who decided what the right number is? I will bet anyone the mortgage that it was not professionals that use or carry firearms on a daily basis. Virtually all gun control advocates believe that 30 rounds of ammunition are far too many for self-defense, even if they have never had to defend themselves with a gun. This uninformed dogmatism makes is difficult to have a reasonable conversation.

The police typically carry duty pistols and patrol rifles with what many gun control advocates would term “high capacity” magazines. For example, many police departments issue the Glock 17, 9mm pistol as a duty weapon. The standard magazine capacity of the G17 is 17 rounds. (Interestingly enough the designation of the pistol has nothing to do with the magazine capacity but with the number of patents that Gaston Glock had received at the time he invented it.) Almost all police departments also issue some version of the AR-15 as a patrol rifle. The standard magazine capacity of this rifle is 30 rounds, as previously discussed.

There are some simple reasons for this ubiquitous police usage of “high capacity” magazines.  Contrary to popular opinion, guns are not a means to instantly stop a threat. They are not instant death-rays that cause attackers to fly backwards through the air and expire theatrically. Guns are not easy to use; they are just easier to use than every other form of defense. It is easy to miss; even more so under stress. Even with perfect marksmanship, it may take multiple rounds on target to stop someone bent on doing you harm. There is also a distinct possibility that a police officer could be attacked by multiple assailants. This is no less true for the armed citizen. Finally, I have never met anyone who has survived a deadly force encounter and decided that they were carrying way too much ammo. It is always better to have ammo left in the gun than to run dry.

The “high capacity,” magazine debate is also disingenuous for several reasons. Many average people can reload a semi-automatic pistol before you can blink. Combat and tactical reloads are simply a learned skill that takes practice. For someone who is able-bodied speed reloads (for the sake of clarity, combat or slide-lock reloads are when the gun has been emptied, tactical reloads are performed when the gun still has ammunition but there is a lull in the action and the shooter wants to ensure a full magazine) are not that difficult. However, my mother cannot do them. My father, who has arthritis in his hands, cannot do them on a bad day. What if he needs to reload his pistol on a bad day? My grandfather is missing three fingers from one hand. What shall he do? Are we saying that older or physically limited people are less entitled to effective self-defense than the young or able-bodied? That seems to be the antithesis of the American mindset. Those who benefit most from the use of a firearm for self-defense; the old, the infirm, those without the inclination to devote themselves to  martial arts, are the ones most threatened by these arbitrary magazine restrictions.

It is around this point in a typical conversation that someone inevitably says: But what about insert mass shooting here?

I strongly believe in pointing at evil and naming it as such. However, mass-shooters are one of the few times that I will decline to do so. Without exception, every recent perpetrator of a mass shooting has been trying to become famous. I will refuse to accommodate this desire as much as possible. I know the names of recent mass shooters have been broadcast across the world and bandied about the internet but I will not mention them. I will refer to the location of the incident and not the name of the shooter.

Evil finds a way. I believe that if any recent mass-shooter did not have firearms, they would have found another way to murder. A few Molotov cocktails, bombs, poison; evil will find a way. However, recent mass murderers have not used these methods; they have used guns. More correctly, they have generally used several semi-automatic firearms with multiple magazines. There is a duality of firearms that many gun owners have yet to admit or embrace. The same attributes that recommend firearms to the law abiding for self-defense make them suitable for mankind’s most demented purposes.

Could the Sandy Hook shooter have killed so many people without guns? I believe that he could have, but the fact remains that he used guns. He used guns in his attack. The Sandy Hook Shooter used guns to murder innocent people. To get guns he shot his own mother in the face. He then proceeded to kill 26 other people, including six and seven year old children. These are hard facts that cannot and should not be disputed.

What laws can be passed that would prevent this level of criminality? The shooter broke multiple laws in the process of completing his massacre. What further laws could have or would have restrained him? He murdered his own mother and innocent children. What law could possibly give pause to one bent on that level of evil or insanity?

At Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora, and Sandy Hook we see similar patterns: mentally disturbed individuals, who have no record of previous crimes, acquiring weapons and committing mass murders. Motivations are typically desire for fame and retribution for perceived wrongs, but the underlying commonality is mental illness. Some blame the guns used in these attacks for the level of violence. Given the horrific nature of these mass shootings, I understand the visceral reactions of people who are anti-gun. I understand the desire to do something, anything, to prevent further mass murders. However, no reasonable person would claim that mental illness was not the underlying cause of the attacks.  Restrictions on the rights of a free people cannot be enacted because of the actions of the insane. By definition mental illness is a manifestation of abnormal mental or behavioral patterns. The law recognizes that often mentally ill individuals cannot be prosecuted without treatments because they do understand right from wrong or the legal proceedings in the same way that a sane person would. By what logic can one mandate restrictions on the rights of the sane and law-abiding and expect that they will have positive effects on the potential actions of the criminally insane?

Despite the fact that an infinitesimal number of shootings are mass shootings, they receive an inordinate amount of media coverage. Because of the massive media coverage, a mass shooter is the potential deadly-force scenario that many people have built in their own minds. People unfamiliar with firearms discuss unarmed victims being able to disable, disarm, or otherwise stop a mass shooter as they reload. Is it possible to disarm an active shooter while they reload? Yes, it is possible. Am I going to try it? Hell no! There are multiple problems with the imagined scenario that make it tactically unfeasible and potentially suicidal:

How do you know the shooter is reloading?

Are you sticking your head out to look? Not a good idea.

Are you behind cover listening for him (a mass shooter is almost certainly a male) to start reloading? Possible, but the scenario assumes there have already been multiple rounds fired in a small space, your ears are probably ringing. Not easy to hear objects hitting the floor with tinnitus.

Assuming auditory exclusion (look it up, it is real) by the time you hear an empty magazine hitting the floor and start your rush anyone halfway competent has completed a re-load. Now you are rushing into the face of a loaded weapon. Not a good day.

Other points to consider: What if our fictional shooter has more than one gun? That has been the MO more often than not.

A knife? Distinctly possible.

What if he has no other weapons? Are you prepared for a hand to hand fight with someone who has no will to live?

At this point in a highly unlikely, fictional scenario, your options are truly limited: fight and likely get shot, run and likely get shot, hide and likely get shot. I go with plan A no matter how much ammo the guy has in the weapon. What else are you going to do? Hopefully find cover, draw a lawfully carried, concealed weapon and engage the threat. It is a much better option than any of the three previously mentioned. It is interesting how often the same people that advocate unarmed attack of a shooter trying to reload are aghast at the idea of shooting back. They talk about the imagined slaughter of innocents that would instantly occur if someone shot at an armed assailant. Could bystanders be hit by additional gunfire? Yes, we are discussing a situation in which someone is deliberately killing innocents. How is that situation going to get worse by trying to stop them with gunfire? At best you slow them down so that others may escape and die anyway. At best you kill the attacker and no one else dies. If the prospect of killing in the defense of the innocent unnerves you, by all means, try to grab a shooter while he reloads. I want the better option.

At this point people immediately bring up the Tucson shooting, claiming that the shooter was reloading when he was disarmed and subdued by bystanders. This is a half-truth. The Tucson shooter has begun to reload when he dropped his spare magazine. Because the shooting occurred in a crowded, open-air setting during daylight people in the crowd were able to secure the dropped magazine and subsequently subdue the then disarmed attacker. This is a tactical scenario that is a very low-probability occurrence. Would I advocate an armed citizen shooting in this situation? I don’t know, there are too many tactical variables. Location of the shooter vice the armed citizen, number of people behind the target, level of training of the citizen, other tactical options. I know at least one armed citizen in the crown elected not to draw his weapon. That is the kind of responsible decision that is expected of people that carry concealed weapons. What if the attacker had completed his reload and continued to shoot? Because of all the potential variables I cannot honestly say if it would be right to shoot or not shoot in that situation, but I want the option. What I do know is that magazine restrictions do not stop mass shootings or any shooting for that matter. What they do is endanger the law-abiding gun owner.

If legislators are basing sweeping firearms legislation on these extremely unlikely mass-shooter scenarios, then they are living in a fantasy world. Educate yourselves people. If you are convinced that I am wrong about a mass-shooter scenario follow my prescription. Find a local firearms trainer or police officer with access to non-lethal marker weapons and a training area. Set up a scenario giving the unarmed victims every advantage you can imagine. Then try it, see what happens. Run it a couple more times with different scenarios, see what happens. Give the shooter the hardest simulations you can image: a limp, one eye, a gun that jams every other round. See how many unarmed people he “kills,” in your simulation. Then feel free to have an opinion.

The final question is this, “What are you trying to accomplish by limiting magazine capacity?” Proponents of these restrictions tend to ignore the fact that people intent on breaking the law will not be slowed by restrictions on magazine capacity. Magazines are not difficult to manufacture. Anyone that is motivated to do so can construct “high capacity,” magazines if they elect to break the law. So, who are you trying to regulate and why? Citizens need standard size magazines as much as, and for the same reasons, as the police. Magazine restrictions only restrict those willing to obey them, people on the right side of the law.

So you think you should be able to own bazookas and F-16’s?

This is one of the sillier arguments out there. No, I don’t want to own a bazooka or an F-16. Do you have any idea how much it would cost to buy bazooka ammunition or to fuel up an F-16? I don’t either but the phrase, “prohibitively expensive,” comes to mind. As we have already established there are reasonable restrictions on the Second Amendment. Anti-tank weapons and fighter aircraft are well-beyond reasonable, which is what makes the argument so ridiculous. If you are trying to equate magazine-fed rifles with missiles, bombs, and cannons; the armament on an F-16, that argument is the very definition of a false equivalency.

I am just fine with my AR-15. When the military finally buys a better rifle I am going to want that one too.

In the next segment we will discuss the effect that an armed populace has on government and the hypothetical of government break-down and outright war.

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