Charles C.W. Cooke:
With the notable exception of Jim Webb, whose many talents seem better suited to another time and place, every single one of the Democratic party’s presidential candidates is in favor of banning at least some of America’s “in common use” firearms. In her recent gun-control missive, Hillary Clinton contended that “military-style assault weapons” are “a danger to law enforcement and to our communities,” and therefore “do not belong on our streets.” On hiscampaign website, Martin O’Malley boasts that, while he was governor there, “Maryland prohibited the sale of assault weapons and limited the size of magazines,” and proposes that the federal government, should “adopt similar, commonsense reforms.” In 2012, CBS reports, then–Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee “backed a state measure to ban semi-automatic assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.” And, although he has stayed pretty quiet on the question this time around, Bernie Sanders voted to ban “assault weapons” during the failed Senate push of 2013, and would, he confirmed last week, happily do so again.
All in all, this focus is a little strange, for, as Lois Beckett explained extremely clearly last year in the pages of the New York Times, there is in fact no such thing as an “assault weapon.” Functionally speaking, the term is entirely meaningless. It does not mean “machine gun”; it does not mean “especially powerful rifle”; it does not mean “child killer” or “cop murderer” or “armor-piercer.” Except insofar as it nods to an aesthetic style that is popular among people who have watched a lot of 24, it means nothing much at all. To draw an analogy, it’s the “organic food” of the self-defense world.
Don’t believe me? Just ask the Violence Policy Center’s Josh Sugarmann, who, in a publicly available 1989 position paper, announced his intention to mislead the public into supporting a ban on everyday rifles by pretending that they were machine guns. “Until someone famous is shot, or something truly horrible happens,” Sugarmann wrote, “handgun restriction is simply not viewed as a priority.” But maybe, he continued cynically, another area might be ripe for exploitation instead:
Assault weapons — just like armor-piercing bullets, machine guns, and plastic firearms – 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. In addition, few people can envision a practical use for these weapons.
Contrary to popular belief, Sugarmann did not invent the term “assault weapon”; marketing departments within the firearms industry did that. Nevertheless, he and his supporters have been more than happy to abuse it in order to advance their agenda, and to do so in the full knowledge that they are perpetrating a fraud. It is thus that a phrase that started life as little more than glossy retail pabulum has become a sharp and effective tool with which the enemies of the right to keep and bear arms have sought to sow confusion, fear, and ignorance. It is thus, too, that a set of quotidian weapons that have never posed much of a problem to anybody come to sit at the center of the national debate.
It is difficult to overstate just how absurd this is. Even if we were to swallow whole the novel set of definitions that the advocates of “assault”-weapons legislation have imposed upon our national deliberations, the case in favor of their coveted laws would remain all but nonexistent. Between 1994 and 2004, Americans were flatly barred from purchasing or transferring 660 arbitrarily selected semi-automatic firearms and from obtaining any magazine that could hold more than ten rounds. This prohibition had no discernible impact whatsoever. Charged in 1997 with evaluating the short-term impact of the measure, the National Institute of Justice reported bluntly that “the evidence is not strong enough for us to conclude that there was any meaningful effect (i.e., that the effect was different from zero).” A second study – commissioned to coincide with the ban’s expiration in 2004 — calmly echoed this conclusion, while noting for the record that there hadn’t been much of a problem in the first instance. No subsequent inquiry has contradicted these assessments.
#share#How about now, a decade later: Have things changed? Nah. In 2014, the FBI reports, there were 11,961 murders in the United States, of which 8,124 were carried out with firearms. (Happily, this represents a now-typical four percent drop from 2013.) Of those 8,124, fewer than 3 percent were carried out with rifles of all sorts and so few were executed with so-called assault weapons that the agency didn’t even bother to keep statistics. If she so wishes, Hillary Clinton can contend theatrically that cosmetically altered rifles are “a danger to law enforcement and to our communities.” But that will not make it true — not even close.
In fact, rifles are the least popular killing tools in the United States. Per the FBI, this is how Americans killed each other in 2014:
What would be considered an “assault weapon” in a rape?