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“Assault Weapons” Defined; How America Could Regulate Rifles

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On Wednesday, President Obama fired his opening salvo in what’s shaping up to be a protracted legal battle over guns, signing 23 executive actions to bolster the government’s existing regulations and improve the national background check system. He then asked Congress to reinstate the now-defunct Federal Assault Weapons Ban, a law that once banned outright the sale and production of certain types of “assault weapon”, a class of firearms that’s squarely in the crosshairs of gun control advocates. With the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting still fresh, there may yet be enough impetus to make a federal assault weapon law stick, but before Congress can get to work on a bill, Washington needs a working definition to qualify a firearm as an “assault weapon”. Even if AWB ’94 were resurrected, its criterion for assault weapon was problematic because it relied heavily on how a firearm looked, not how it worked, and bore no weight on fully automatic weapons. A truly effective federal prohibition of assault weapons should qualify a firearm based on its design, intended use, and common application in the field by its intended user. In addition, the law would need to be expansive enough to address subtypes of assault rifles, including service rifles, designated marksman rifles (DMR), battle rifles, and carbines. 

New Standards For Assault Weapons

So if you want to craft a standard for assault rifles, a good place to start is with the weapon that began it all. Designed to straddle the line between close range submachine guns and longer range rifles, the Sturmgewehr 44 (StG44 for short) is considered by many to be the first modern era assault rifle. The StG44 had the following specifications:

  • Full length (from stock to barrel) of 37″
  • 16.5″ barrel
  • Selectable fire between full-auto and semi-auto
  • Automatic fire rate of 550-600 rounds/min
  • Used a 30 round box magazine
  • Effective up to 300m (auto) or 600m (semi auto)
  • Muzzle Velocity of 685m/s

Developed to serve as the service rifle for German infantry units in WWII, the StG44 was designed the same tasks as most of the rifles commonly thought of as assault weapons today. Also, the mechanics and performance of the Sturmgewehr are strikingly comparable to many of today’s service rifles such as the M16, FAMAS (F1/G2), and AK-74. The StG44’s perfomance capabilities and features would make an effective platform for classifying the various rifle models as assault weapons, provided that the weapon in question matched or exceeded any two of the StG’s specifications. As an example, an M16 would qualify as an assault weapon with an overall length of 39.5″, a barrel length of 20″, select fire action, and a muzzle velocity of 984m/s. 

With design and performance standards in place, the next piece of the puzzle is determining which weapons to apply the criteria to. To simply select certain models, or even less precise groupings like, “military style” or “assault type”, would render the law inadequate and ineffective. Here, the government should apply its new standards to four categories of rifle.

Service Rifles:

  • A service rifle is defined as the standard issue rifle of a given army or armed force. These weapons are designed to be suitable in any environment and are noted for the exceptional ease with whcih they can be upgraded

Battle Rifles:

  • A battle rifle, is any military service rifle that fires a “full-power” rifle cartridge like the 7.62 x 51mm NATO round. 

Designated Marksman Rifles:

  • A DMR, is the weapon used by soldiers in the “Designated Marksman” role, a position that fills the space between a regular infantryman and a sniper. 

Carbines:

  • A carbine is defined as a long firearm that’s generally shorter than a rifle or musket. Most modern firearms fitting this description are shorter versions of full size rifles. They can fire the same types of ammunition, but achieve a comparatively lower muzzle velocity. 

If the revised standards were applied to weapons fitting any one of the four above descriptions, most military-use rifles would be within range of regulation or outright prohibition. Of these categories, carbines pose the greatest challenge since the designation is a little less clear than the others, but overall, such a system would give the government a comprehensive set of criteria for determining if a rifle qualifies as an assault weapon. From there, the process of enacting controls is easier and more precise. 

Can Uncle Sam Handle The Workload? 

So say Congress adopts these standards and the president signs them into law, the big question that will remain is whether the federal government could actually enforce the law. The individual state governments can’t be compelled to go along with a federal prohibition or regulation on firearms and only 19 of the 50 have assault weapon laws of their own, so the chief federal enforcement agency, BATFE, must be able to enforce  on its own any law the federal government passes .

By the numbers, BATFE has a fair scorecard, as its 2,000+ active special agents recommend around 10,000 felons for federal prosecution each year, compared to about 11,000 gun related homicides that occur in the United States per year. But new legislation, particularly laws that introduce new restrictions on firearms or increased federal licensing, would require BATFE to expand to keep pace with the demands of new regulations. How much would this cost? Currently BATFE operates with a staff of 5,102 employees and a budget of $1.152 billion (about one-tenth of what the DOD spends on the F-35 Lightning II alone) so increases here could be substantial and make mere ripples in the federal budget. 

Last Words

With Washington mired in debate over the debt ceiling, taxes, and federal spending, it is unlikely that much progress will be made in the near term on gun regulation. However, it is important that the federal government create reasonable, effective, enforceable standards for qualifying a firearm as an “ssault weaopn, otherwise a new law will be just an ineffective as Congress’ prior attempts at gun control. Lastly, any new regulation must be acocmpanied by an expansion of BATFE since SCOTUS has twice ruled that when regulating firearms, Uncle Sam is on his own.

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About Alexander J Smith III

  • Igor

    During the Bush administration didn’t the compliant republican congress pass laws that hobbled the ATF? And haven’t they stymied attempts to appoint a department head?

    Do the republicans want half of America, heavily armed, to wipe out the other half?

    As near as I can see, no hunter needs or wants these super weapons or super clips. I was down at the duck boatramp over the weekend and those guys are hitting full bags and they do it with the same kind of shotgun I was using in 1955!

    You can exclude hunters from consideration.

  • Igor

    But beware of Utah crazies who are ready to raise an insurrection against the President. In fact, they are issuing warnings (ultimatums?) about gun restrictions already.

    warning to the President


    In the most strident warning over gun control to President Obama yet, the Utah Sheriffs’ Association is pledging to go to war over any administration plan to take guns away, even if it means losing their lives.

    Calling the Second Amendment a sacred right of citizens to protect themselves from “tyrannical subjugation,” the association state elected sheriffs said in a new letter, “we are prepared to trade our lives for the preservation of its traditional interpretation.”

    Theirs is the first meaningful proof that some in law enforcement and the military are preparing to fight federal forces if the president wins his goal of sweeping gun control.

    In a direct warning to Obama, the FBI and other agencies, the sheriffs wrote: “Make no mistake, as the duly-elected sheriffs our our respective counties, we will enforce the rights guaranteed to our citizens by the Constitution. No federal official will be permitted to descend upon our constituents and take from them what the Bill of Rights–in particular Amendment II–has given them.”

    While he wants an assault weapons ban and limits on ammo magazines, the president has not yet suggested he wants to confiscate guns.

    The association revealed their concerns in a letter to the president just made public. It was sent on January 17. It opens by decrying the recent shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

    But the group argued that guns are simply “instruments,” and that they are needed by law-abiding citizens to sometimes subdue killers. “The citizenry must continue its ability to keep and bear arms, including arms that adequately protect them from all types of illegality,” said the letter.

    Several groups have argued that assault weapons and high-capacity magazines are needed for self defense.

    The association also called on Obama to push his efforts through Congress, not executive orders with no debate. “Please remember that the Founders of this great nation created the Constitution, and its accompanying Bill of Rights, an effort to protect citizens from all forms of tyrannical subjugation.”

    This is the kind of atmosphere that existed in Dallas in 1963, you know, just before the JFK assassination.

    Don’t go to Salt Lake City, Mr. President!

  • Baronius

    But “assault weapons” aren’t super weapons, Igor. They’re not particularly good for crimes, because they’re too big. And they’re hardly ever used in crimes.

  • Igor

    Maybe.

    Hunters tell me that assault weapons (whatever you want to call them) are useless for hunting. They’re only good for slaughtering a schoolyard full of kids. Just look at the record.

    And the prohibition against “fully automatic” as opposed to “semi-automatic” doesn’t hold because every teen-age mischief maker knows how to file down the sear to do the conversion. Well, I certainly did when I was a teen.

    BTW, I abandoned my dream of getting a Bond Arms Snake Slayer for self-defense because the trigger is too exposed to be safe. And the Taurus Judge is too heavy. They’d just end up being expensive dust-catchers in a couple months and I have a lifetime supply of those.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    There’s reports of yet another school shooting, at some college in Texas…but hey, the tree of Liberty must from time to time be nourished with the blood of innocents, right? After all, what is the noise of assault weapons being used on our streets? It is, of course, the sound of FREEDOM!!!!

    When will they ever learn….

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Baronius –

    But “assault weapons” aren’t super weapons, Igor. They’re not particularly good for crimes, because they’re too big. And they’re hardly ever used in crimes.

    Except for mass shootings, that is….

  • Igor

    Assault weapons are excellent for “suicide by cop”.

  • clav

    Except for mass shootings, that is…

    No, usually not even then; the rifle used in Newtown, an Ar-15 was the only “assault” weapon of the three the shooter had with him, and it was semi-auto, not full. At Columbine, the shooters had a scattergun each (one was sawed off, plus a pistol (semi-auto) and a carbine (10 shot). The weapon used at the Sikh temple shooting back in August was a 9MM semiauto handgun purchased legally. The weapons used in the movie theater in Aurora CO ;ast July were an M-16 semi-auto, a semi-auto hand gun and a scattergun. The shooter who got gabby Giffords oin Tucson in January 2011 used a 9MM Glock pistol, but did have a 33 round magazine on it.

    So, in 4 shootings in the last two years plus Columbine, a total of 12 weapons were used, but only two were “assault” rifles; and a pretty good case can be made that semi-autos are not really “assault” weapons.

    “Assault” rifles are a relative rarity even in mass shootings.

  • Alexander J Smith III

    Clavos,

    I agree that handguns are the greater concern when it comes to mass shootings (since they appear to be the weapon of choice), however items like AR-15’s and M16’s could be classed as assault weapons were the government to use a methodology like the one above, using the inherent functions of a weapon to qualify it, then either ban or regulate it. Of course there is the question of how to qualify an “assault” handgun, but the rifles are definitely doable.

  • Baronius

    Slate.com estimates that there are 3.75 million AR-15’s in the US (the most popular make of “assault weapon”). FBI reports 323 homicides in 2011 caused by all rifles including “assault weapons”. A ban is equivalent to putting a stoplight on an untraveled stretch of road.

  • Baronius

    If you want to reduce the number of mass killings, get the press to agree to not publish the names of the perpetrators. Guarantee that if you commit a multiple murder, your name will vanish. The pathetic glory hound will lose his motivation.

    Of course, the kind of powerless creep who commits this crime prefers a nasty-looking gun that makes up for his lack of self-esteem. But if there weren’t any, do you think he’d give up shooting people? No, he’d just use a different weapon. But if you really want to seal off his twisted self-glory, keep him off the front pages.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    But in any case, those who decide to kill a lot of people are only enabled when they have access to assault rifles or high-capacity clips. Remember the Tucson, AZ shooting – he was only stopped because someone tackled him when he had to change clips.

    There is absolutely no need to have assault weapons on our streets – Gen. McChrystal recently said precisely the same thing – and there’s no need for high-capacity clips or armor-piercing bullets. There. is. no. need. for such things on our streets. Anyone who thinks otherwise is simply being led by the nose by the arms dealers who are making money hand over fist by telling everyone “Obama’s a-comin’ to get your guns!!!!”

    Even over two-thirds of NRA members support registration of all firearms and background checks for all sales…but apparently the NRA does not represent its members – anymore, it only represents the gun manufacturers.

  • Doug Hunter

    #12

    I disagree, I like the idea that the people can have arms, keeps the government power trippers a little more honest when they know they could be shot… the blood of tyrants and all (the more you read from the founding fathers, the more you should realize they were indeed right wing radicals who just fought a revolution over taxes).

    Assault rifles are but a small slice of the weapons used in murders, they don’t scare me one bit (drowning in bathtubs is a greater danger than getting shot with a rifle apparently… maybe people should have to get a government license to take a bath!)

    I think we shoot each other too much*, especially in the metro cities (almost 3-4 times the murder rate of smaller towns), unfortunately those folks own the country as urban population has grown to outvote rural and they want to treat everyone like they treat their ghettoes.

    *On the other hand, I’m not sure we shoot our politicians enough.

  • Baronius

    Doug – Should be “assault weapons” in paragraph 2, not “assault rifles”. Assault rifles are a specific category of military firearm which aren’t available for civilian use.

  • Igor

    @12-glen: yes, the NRA is just a lobbying group for gun sellers. I don’t think they even give out free targets anymore, do they? They certainly don’t care about hunters, and everyone knows it.

    Real hunters don’t even belong to NRA, they belong to Ducks Unlimited.

  • Baronius

    Glenn – What’s the reason to NOT have “assault weapons” on our streets?

    (BTW, see comment #14. Assault weapon =/= assault rifle.)

  • Clavitos

    AJS III:

    Agreed, the gov can classify and proscribe any weapons they deem to be a danger in terms of these mass shootings. My point, as a veteran who has used both semi- and full auto weapons, is that, in the military we did not classify M-16s (for instance) as “assault weapons” unless they were capable of fully automatic operation; that was, in fact, our criterion for the designation.

    And such weapons are already proscribed and unavailable to the general public, although gangbangers and drug gangs do seem to be able to get their hands on ‘em with distressing regularity (Nevertheless, I don’t think there’s ever been a single instance of those types of criminals ever engaging in mass shootings of anyone but each other, which should probably regarded as a form of public service.

    In any case, as the research I published in #8 seems to indicate, semi-auto long guns (currently designated as “assault weapons,” don’t seem to be the weapon of choice for most mass killers. Banning them will likely do little to reduce incidence of mass killings; it might perhaps be more fruitful to restrict semi-auto handguns.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Baronius –

    Glenn – What’s the reason to NOT have “assault weapons” on our streets?

    Nobody should have access to greater firepower than that possessed by the police…and anybody who is so worried about not being able to outgun the police is in serious need of therapy.

  • Baronius

    What do you mean by “outgun”?

  • Clavitos

    and anybody who is so worried about not being able to outgun the police is in serious need of therapy.

    Depends on where you live…

  • Igor

    @13-actually, the founders were fighting against Crown support of a rightist monopoly, the British East India Company, that paid the Crown 15%.

  • Igor

    Any decent mechanic can convert a semi-auto to fully automatic. The instructions are probably on the internet.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Clav –

    That applies to any stable first-world democracy…and that’s what we are.

  • Alexander J Smith III

    Clav,

    I think you’re right on the effectiveness of an ban on assault rifles, because most of the mass killings that are being cited as impetus for such a ban weren’t carried out with rifles but with Handguns. On the other hand the Government seems bent on creating some type of regulation for rifles, so with this piece I wanted to demonstrate a way for Federal regulators to do it and have the law make some sense, as opposed to just re-adopting an older law which didn’t clarify the issue in the first place.

    I would like to work up something (as I am currently in the process of doing) on what one could do about “assault-type handguns” and I’d certainly bend an ear to how the military qualifies a handguns as such. The combination of reasonable regulation around handguns and revising how States allow weapons permits could really make an impact on gun violence, beyond a ban on assault rifles.

  • Baronius

    I think the beginning of a serious discussion is determining what we want to accomplish. Reduction in crime? in violent crime? killing? mass killing? accidental shooting?

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Baronius –

    Why not all four?

  • Glenn Contrarian

    And while we’re at it, why can’t we all be honest about the whether a lack of firearms correlates with high murder rates? Generally speaking (which means there are a few exceptions…but the existence of an exception does not disprove the rule), nations that have a high rate of firearm ownership (or are third-world nations) are significantly more likely to have high murder rates. Note that I did NOT say “firearm-related murder rates”, but overall murder rates.

    Australia – a big bugaboo of conservatives since they got rid of their worst firearms – has a little over one-fifth of America’s murder rate. Japan – which is an almost gun-free nation (firearms are strictly prohibited there) – has a murder rate that is about one-twelfth our own.

    Our murder rate is 4.8 per 100K. Conservatives howl about Obama trying to make America like Europe…but the highest rate among any nation in Western Europe is Liechtenstein at 2.8 per 100K.

    And if sensible gun laws were SO ineffective, then one would expect that Canada’s rate would be significantly higher than the 1.6 per 100K that it is, given how easy it is for Americans to smuggle arms across the border to sell to criminals who can’t get them legally there.

    Guns don’t kill people – but guns make it a whole lot easier to kill people…and it’s much harder (physically AND emotionally) to kill someone face-to-face with a knife than it is from ten feet or more with a gun.

    We can’t blame the difference between Canada’s and America’s murder rates on access to illegal firearms, or on different rates of playing violent video games, or on having a tyrannical society. The ONLY significant differences are that in America, gun ownership is not effectively regulated, assault rifles and high-capacity clips are legally available, and we have a culture that is so deathly afraid that the guv’mint’s a-gonna come take our guns away – just look at what Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a recent e-mail:

    “You and I are literally surrounded. The gun-grabbers in the Senate are about to launch an all-out-assault on the Second Amendment. On your rights. On your freedom…[T]hey’re coming for your guns,”

    That’s the fear-mongering that is the single biggest factor in keeping our murder rate so high. Yep – the sound of innocent American citizens being shot by criminals (and idiotic family members) with easy access to guns…that’s the sound of FREEDOM!!!!

  • Igor

    Well I think my personal odyssey in search of a defensive handgun is finished. Attractive as the Taurus Judge or the Bond Arms Snake Slayer are, I think they will not serve me well. Probably, the thing will end up in a drawer gathering dust. I’d have to carry it with me every day, every where, for many years. It’ll never happen. The damn gun will increase my chances of getting killed by being a handy weapon for some burglar.

    I had a .22 magnum in the 60’s and that’s what happened to it: the day after my neighbor was burglarized (I slept thru it) I sold the thing.

  • Doug Hunter-

    #27

    Maybe people where murder is uncommon don’t feel the need to defend themselves with guns. If you want to be honest about looking at the issue perhaps you should consider that whites are about 60% more likely to own a gun than blacks, yet blacks are about 600% more likely to murder someone than whites. Makes me think there’s something other than gun ownership that is the driver. Again, we’re legislating to the lowest common denominator, inner city blacks can’t keep from shooting each other with handguns so rural NRA members have to give up their rifles… I’m not really following the logic but I suppose one should never let a crisis go to waste when it affords an opportunity for more government power!!!