If gun-control advocates and our media want to have a conversation about government restrictions on gun ownership, I think that’s fine. Debating more issues, rather than fewer, is probably good for our politics.
Today’s New York Times story on the AR-15 has a lot of good information and aims to be balanced, but the story still manages to perpetuate many of the most stubborn myths about rifles.
Some points I would like to make in response:
Civilian-available AR-15s aren’t automatic weapons
First, the Times calls the AR-15 “the civilian version of the military’s M-16.” The M-16 is a machine gun, that throughout most of its history – and certainly in popular understanding – has been a fully-automatic weapon. When you squeeze the trigger on an automatic weapon, bullets keep firing out of it until you stop squeezing. The U.S. military has shied away from automatic firing, and the newest M-16s have other settings – three-shot burst (which, relative to the automatic setting, preserves ammo and inculcates more discipline among soldiers in combat) and semi-automatic.
AR-15s that are legal to buy do not have the three-shot burst that the military’s current M-16s have. They also don’t have the automatic-fire option that most people associate with the M-16. [Update: I should have made it clearer that the M-16s the U.S. military buys today do not have the automatic option.]
If you’re going to use a famous gun as a point of reference, it seems responsible to mention that unlike the famous machine gun you’re comparing it to, the AR-15 is incapable of automatic or burst fire.
‘Semiautomatic’ isn’t really a useful descriptor
The Times writes:
AR-15s are not the only weapons used by rampaging shooters. Semiautomatic handguns are also frequently employed.
Again, “semiautomatic” mostly means “not automatic.” You pull the trigger on a semiauto gun like an AR-15, and one bullet comes out. You pull it again, and another bullet comes out. Unlike a single-shot gun, you don’t need to cock it or load it after each shot.
‘Assault weapon’ is not a very helpful descriptor
The Times piece twice uses the term “assault weapon” to describe the AR-15. But there’s no real definition of the term.
First, all guns can be used to assault someone – even a muzzle-loading black-powder rifle.
Second, Congressional attempts to define this term were laughably ad hoc.
A rifle could cease being an assault weapon if you sawed off the flash suppressor. It could become an assault weapon if you added a bayonet.
A 49-ounce handgun could be legal under this law while an identical version that was one ounce heavier could be outlawed.
I’m pasting the bill’s definition of “assault weapon” at the bottom of this post. The law didn’t target guns used for murder. It targeted guns that look too military-like.
The AR-15 is not an “assault rifle”
Assault weapon/assault rifle, what’s the difference?
One is a meaningless term, as I explained above. The other is a precise term that doesn’t apply to the AR-15 – despite the Times’ article’s suggestion connecting the two. Also, ”assault rifle” describes guns that are already illegal — because they are automatic — and basically never used in murders.
The Pentagon defines the term “assault rifle,” and David Kopel quotes that definition in an article in the Journal of Contemporary Law. He writes:
As the United States Defense Department’s Defense Intelligence Agency bookSmall Arms Identification and Operation Guide explains, “assault rifles” are “short, compact, selective-fire weapons that fire a cartridge intermediate in power between submachine gun and rifle cartridges.” In other words, assault rifles are battlefield rifles which can fire automatically.
Weapons capable of fully automatic fire, including assault rifles, have been regulated heavily in the United States since the National Firearms Act of 1934. Taking possession of such weapons requires paying a $200 federal transfer tax and submitting to an FBI background check, including ten-print fingerprints.