The Problem with "Assault" Weapons
Like no other international mass shooting in recent memory, the Christchurch Mosque massacre in New Zealand is having a resounding impact on gun control discussions in the United States.
In short order, politicians from Bernie Sanders to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez praised New Zealand for its immediate decision to implement gun control. At the same time, they reiterated that the U.S. follow in New Zealand’s footsteps by passing so-called “assault weapons” bans.
In the American case, there were already several assault weapons ban bills filed in both the U.S. House and Senate before the Christchurch massacre. Although Republican control of the Senate will likely prevent the passage of these bills, these recent filings and the new outrage from the New Zealand tragedy have re-ignited discussions about gun control.
The Origins of the Assault Weapons Ban
AWBs have been a fetish of sorts for gun control proponents during the past three decades. California was one of the first states to pass this policy in 1989 with the Roberti-Roos Act, which banned the ownership and transfer of various brands of assault weapons. The weapons that fell under this ban consisted of rifles and even some pistols and shotguns. This became the inspiration for other assault weapons bans across the nation and eventually led to Bill Clinton’s signing of Federal Assault Weapons Bans of 1994 .
In 2004, the 1994 AWB expired under President George W. Bush’s administration. Many advocates for the AWB warned that expiration would lead to a sudden surge in crime. Not only did murder rates drop from 2003 to 2004, but they have continued falling into the present. Per capita, gun ownership increased by 56 percent from 1993 to 2013, while gun violence plummeted by 49 percent during the same period.
During the past 20 years, lax gun policies like Constitutional Carry, the ability to carry a firearm without a permit, have also become politically relevant. In 2019 alone, states like Kentucky , Oklahoma , and South Dakota embraced Constitutional Carry, which now brings the number of states with this policy to 16. Gun liberalization considered, crimes rates have continued to drop. In 2014, for example, homicide rates reached a 51-year low .
The Obsession over Assault Weapons: Much Ado About Nothing?
Indeed, “assault weapon” is a politically loaded term with no standard definition. They are often confused with assault rifles, weapons with single-shot, burst fire, and fully automatic fire settings, which are employed by militaries around the world. These weapons are not readily available to the civilian populace in America due to stringent regulations from the 1934 National Firearms Act (NFA)and the Hughes Amendment of the 1986 Firearm Owners Protection Act (FOPA). Firearms like the AR-15, a whipping boy for the gun control crowd, only has semi-automatic settings.
Despite these facts, the media have run with the assault weapon canard. Interestingly, research shows that weapons that fall under the arbitrary assault weapon label account for a small percentage of crime. According to Gary Kleck in Targeting Guns, assault weapons were only used in 1.4 percent of gun crimes before any national or state assault weapons bans were implemented in the 1990s. In 2001, the Bureau of Justice found that 8 percent of criminals used assault weapons in firearms-related crimes.
In 2017 alone, only 403 people were killed by all types of rifles. To put this in perspective, this was a year when there were nearly 15,000 total murders, which includes both firearms and non-firearms related deaths. From 2007 to 2017, the much-maligned AR-15 accounted for only 173 deaths in mass shootings.
Assault Weapons Bans Enhance the On-Going Trend of State Control
Crime statistics aside, there is another key reason to be worried about AWBs. These new laws involve conceding more government control over human behavior.
As Ryan McMaken notes , the past century has been one of federal consolidation of power, in which numerous Anglo-Saxon traditions have been subverted by the managerial state. This is most apparent when dealing with the issue of militias. The tradition of a decentralized militia goes back to the libertarian Levellers of 17th century England. This decentralized militia practice did not stay confined to the British Isles as it soon became a part of American colonial culture.
In the early days of the American Republic, Founders like Patrick Henry and George Mason continued that tradition by stressing the importance of the militia instead of centralized standing armies. With the codification of the Second Amendment, both the militia and private firearms ownership aspects became bedrocks of American civic culture up until the early 20th century.
A key component of militia units is their access to military-grade weaponry. However, the militia’s autonomy from the federal government and civilian access to military weapons has been significantly undermined during the past century. David Yassky explains how the Dick Act (the Militia Act) of 1903 and subsequent acts have put the National Guard increasingly under the federal government’s thumb. Yassky points out that “anyone enlisting in a National Guard unit is automatically also enlisted into a "reserve" unit of the U.S. Army (or Air Force), the federal government may use National Guard units for a variety of purposes, and the federal government appoints the commanding officers for these units.”
It also doesn’t help that the passage of the aforementioned 1934 NFA and Hughes Amendment of the 1986 FOPA make it prohibitively expensive for everyday gun owners to acquire military weapons such as machine guns. In the case of the 1986 FOPA, civilians were banned from purchasing machine guns manufactured after the date that this law was enacted.