Now that the gun violence prevention (GVP) community appears to have come together to push for a ban on assault rifles, and Herr Donald Schumck-o has decided that anyone over the age of 18 should be able to walk into a gun shop and purchase said product, maybe it’s time to figure out how and when the term ‘assault rifle’ should be used.
According to Gun-nut Nation, there’s no such thing as an ‘assault rifle,’ at least not anything that can get into the hands of any law-abiding gun owner, unless he’s willing to plunk down $200 for a Treasury-NFA tax stamp and wait a few months for the purchase to be approved. This is because gun purists have decided that the term ‘assault rifle’ can only be applied to fully-automatic weapons, since the term first applied to a German sub-machine gun, the ‘Sturmgewehr,’ that was issued to German troops near the end of World War II.
Now the fact that this particular design first appeared in a gun issued to Russian troops during the Battle of Stalingrad makes little difference to those gun-history experts who pliantly craft their narratives to fit the marketing needs of the NSSF and the NRA. But why let facts get in the way of whatever nonsense you want to peddle, particularly when you can tie your spiel to something that will protect their 2nd-Amdnement ‘rights?’
The first time the term ‘assault weapon’ appeared in legislation was the Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act, the assault-weapon ban that became law in California, passed following the gunning down of five immigrant school-children in 1989. And here’s the critical wording of the actual law which needs to be understood today: “a high rate of fire and capacity for firepower that its function as a legitimate sports or recreational firearm is substantially outweighed by the danger that it can be used to kill and injure human beings.”
Now the good news about this bill was that it made an explicit distinction between weapons designed to be used against human beings, as opposed to weapons designed for hunting and sport. The bad news is that the law didn’t explicitly define such terms as ‘high rate of fire,’ and ‘capacity for firepower,’ which opened the Pandora’s box of how to define an ‘assault weapon’ that remains open to the present day. Instead of defining these terms and then banning any weapon which met these definitions, the law listed over 50 specific banned guns, and added some silly language about various cosmetic doo-dads (collapsible stock, flash hider, etc.) which don’t really change a gun’s lethality in any particular way.
When the Feds put together their AWB in 1994, they borrowed the list of California-banned guns, included the various design features but dropped any reference to lethality; i.e., no mention of ‘high rate of fire’ or ‘capacity’ at all. This opened the door for Gun-nut Nation to claim that since no semi-automatic rifle can shoot faster than the speed at which the shooter pulls the trigger, there is no real difference between an AR-15 and any other kind of semi-automatic gun. In fact, the 1994 AWB, a creation of Chuck Schumer by the way, said absolutely nothing about why the law was needed beyond this statement in the Introduction to the bill: “To make unlawful the transfer or possession of assault weapons.” Period. That’s all she (or he) wrote.
I don’t want to predict whether an AWB has any chance of becoming law. But the GVP still needs to come up with a comprehensive and accepted definition of an ‘assault weapon,’ a definition not based on what the gun looks like, but what it’s designed to do; namely, to kill and injure as many human beings as quickly as you can. And anyone who denies that this is how and why assault weapons are used will also believe that Mexico is going to pay for the wall.