assault rifle: (n) a military weapon used in attack situations, usually with automatic firing capacity intended to threaten the enemy into retreat, or kill an enemy
assault style weapon: (n) a civilian weapon which has the appearance of a military weapon because external features such as a pistol grip trigger, barrel shroud, dull black color, bayonet mount, and high-capacity magazine clip(s); semi-automatic firing capacity, though its rate of firing can be accelerated with a bump-stock that uses the recoil effect to reload the chamber and fire additional rounds without the shooter needing to release the trigger; any image of a weapon that scares the general public; a euphemism developed by the media in the 1980’s to describe military style features on civilian weapons.
For those of us who do not own a gun, let alone keeps arsenals of weapons at home, or live in the “gun culture”, we have a dilemma when the discussion of gun rights and control come up. Because we do not invest our free time into researching, procuring, target practicing, and cleaning our guns, we do not know how they work.
Accepting my lack of knowledge necessary for this debate, I have been having conversations with some folks who believe that owning weapons is not just interesting and fun, but necessary for their sense of safety. I shall address those issues in future post(s?), but for now let me describe what I have learned about the technology of today’s firearms.
Since the images of Vietnam War era solider advancing with M16’s and the Patty Hearst photo as a Symbionese Liberation Army recruit appeared in the 1970’s, our society has been fascinated with weapons that look like military weapons. For some this appears to me to be an identity phenomenon. For others this appears to me to be shock and horror that such weapons exist or are desired by the former group.
But, other than high-capacity magazine clips and bump-stock adaptations for assault style weapons, are assault style weapons different from most hunting or target shooting rifles manufactured today? No. Thus, the NRA line has some validity: taking away the “assault style” will do nothing to reduce the risk that someone could use a standard weapon to injure or kill as many people as possible.
A good comparison, which I found on the Internet, is that assault style weapons are like Honda Civics souped-up to look like NASCAR vehicles. Underneath the hot colors, spoiler, air scoops, wide tires, and loud muffler is a Honda Civic. It can get you from point A to point B at legal or illegal speeds. It can carry your groceries, or kill you and other people, when used foolishly.
Similarly, assault style weapons are mostly rifles souped-up to look like military, or scary, weapons. Just as the street-racing Honda Civic owner is probably telling you something about how hot and powerful he wants to feel (yes, “he” as this probably is a masculinity issue in my opinion), the guy who owns an assault style weapon wants you to know that he wants to be hot and powerful. This, then is an identify issue. We might say the issue is an assault on masculinity that contributes to street racing and mass shootings, but I shall leave that discussion for a future post(s?).
Banning hyper-masculine identity issues is pretty unlikely, thus what might we do to limit our perceived threat of mass shooters with assault style weapons?
First, let us acknowledge that the federal government DOES LIMIT OUR SECOND AMENDMENT RIGHTS TO KEEP AND BEAR ARMS: civilians are not allowed to own military weapons, aka assault rifles with automatic firing capacity (as well as a host of other military weapons system, but I shall leave that for a future post.)
This raises the question of the semi-automatic firing systems, which is one of the elements that gun control advocates point to as to why mass shooting have become so lethal. Can the federal or state governments ban semi-automatic trigger systems?
Back to my conversations with gun owners and advocates… Automatic and semi-automatic trigger systems work by harnessing the physics of a gun’s recoil (i.e. when fired, the force of the explosion propels the bullet forward out the barrel of the gun, and the stock recoils backwards into the shooter’s shoulder, elbow or gut, depending on how he or she (yes, women do fire guns at times) hold the weapon. The force of the recoil ejects the spent round’s casing, inserts the next round, and cocks the firing pin.
In an automatic trigger system, the shooter just holds the trigger down to continue to firing. This can occur in rifles and pistols, thus is not exclusive to rifles, though this is the usual image of an assault style weapon. My military friends tell me that automatic trigger systems can be set to fire a burst of 2 or 3 bullets at time, or can continuously fire until the clip is empty or the gun over-heats and seizes up. They also inform me that such bursts, unless the shooter is highly trained, are mostly inaccurate because the recoil also moves the barrel around. This a rapid burst of 2 or 3 bullets is really more to scare the enemy into retreating or hiding behind a wall or vehicle or other object. This allows the advancing solider the seconds needed to target that enemy, so that when he looks over or around the protective object, the soldier can take careful aim and kill him.
Semi-automatic trigger systems essentially work the same way as automatic trigger systems, but the shooter has to release and pull the trigger for each round. Thus, other than using a bump-stock system as described above, the rate of firing depends on how fast the shooter can pull the triggers.
If you live in a rural area, such as I do, and hear the local gun enthusiasts at target practice, you know that blam-blam-blam-blam-blam-blam-blam-blam-blam-blam can happen really quickly.
(On a side story, one day while dropping off the trash, I noticed some of our local gun enthusiasts had set up a firing range in safe area. I stopped to chat. They invited me to try out the gun, which I believe was an AR-15 — it looked like an M16, and they were active-duty military at the time. I recalled my youthful training with a 22 rifle and subsequent yoga experience, breathed quietly, took 6 shots, all of which hit within an inch of the center of the target a 100 feet, handed the weapon back and smiled, They stayed clear of me since.)
Now contrast that semi-automatic trigger system with a John Wayne western. You know, the rate of firing was how fast the six-shooter could turn the wheel to the chamber and pull back the hammer, or break the shotgun to put in two more rounds, or pull the handle forward and back. These images make for action-packed movies, but are not useful to kill dozens of people in hallways or at concerts. If an intended mass shooter has only this system, I could probably walk over, take the weapon away from him, and whack him up-side of the head before he could reload, aim and shoot me. Let’s also recall that at the time the Second Amendment was written, a well-regulated militia could possibly fire 2 shots per minute with their muzzle-loader rifle. Any idea where that expression, “Could not hit the broad side of a barn” came from?
But, come back to the 21st century… for decades most weapons, rifles and pistols, have been assembled with semi-automatic trigger systems. Technology is one of the genies that is out of the bottle. While we may call for “banning assault style rifles” all we are doing is taking the loud muffler and wide tires off of a Honda Civic. Those semi-automatic trigger systems are in the homes and hands of millions of people. Let’s acknowledge that the NRA supporters are right: if you try to ban semi-automatic trigger systems you will be “taking my guns away”.
What might we, as a society and government, regulate then?
First, bump-stocks, which have only the purpose of turning a semi-automatic weapon into an automatic weapon.
Second, high-capacity ammunition clips, which allow many rounds to be fired in seconds, and reloads rapidly for more firing. Beyond giving the self-defense minded person “greater fire power”, they serve no hunting purpose and just give the bad guys higher capacity to kill people.
One of the more novel idea that our local newspaper editor suggested was to regulate the total number of rounds that someone could purchase in one year. His idea was for the government to calculate, based on anticipated self-defense, training, and hunting needs, what each gun owner would use in one year. Once that number of rounds was purchased, no more (he did not address how to assure this). If the person wanted to use these all those rounds up at target practice, then he would be out of luck come hunting season (at the end of the year) or in that defending-my-home-and-family situation. This might encourage the gun owner to not use ammo carelessly. Also someone intent on a mass shooting, especially younger ones, might needs years to accumulate enough rounds to carry out his deed. By then, the impulse might be gone (or his frontal lobe might have developed more).
Another useful piece to the gun ownership and safety of society issue are allowing government agencies and interested parties to collect data so that we can have an informed debate (not just about mass shootings, but about gun use in domestic violence and suicide situations, police use of guns in deadly force incidents, rate of gun ownership). Without data, we are merely trying to shout our unfounded beliefs louder than the other guys.
We need background check systems that assure us that those purchasing guns do not have criminal or behavioral histories that should restrict their owning guns. We need those background check systems to be integrated so that local, state, and military police and court systems data is available in one place, not several disconnected jurisdictions.
As most of my self-defense oriented friends like to say, “Good people do not use guns the wrong way. Bad people do”. If we accept this premise, then background checks is a place to identify those bad people before they purchase guns. This system should apply to all transfers of gun, including gun shows, benefit raffles, and person-to-person transfers (e.g. bad people should not be getting Pappy’s hunting rifle, just because they are related). And, those who are afraid that background checks are the start of labeling any gun owner as risky, thus a means of beginning of “taking my guns away”, need to be assured that regulating the regulators will be monitored to avoid abuse of such a system.
Finally, we need to assure that those who chose to own guns have sufficient training to use them correctly, and accurately in what ever situation they intend to use the weapon. Hunting and self-defense situations require different training. Spraying a crowd with bullets requires little training. More on this later.
Now, what does the Second Amendment really say…