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