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Can We Do Anything About Murderous Assault Weapons?

'It is obvious that AR-15s and other assault weapons should and can be banned.' And yet they are not. (Photo: bk1bennett/flickr/cc)

The murderer in Orlando on Sunday used a Sig Sauer version of the AR-15 assault weapon. The story is so awfully familiar.

The mass murderers in San Bernardino who killed 14 and wounded 21 used AR-15 assault rifles. In Aurora, Colorado, a man with an AR-15 killed 12 and wounded 58 in a movie theater. It was an AR-15 that slaughtered 20 children and 6 faculty members at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. A database compiled by Mother Jones magazine shows that assault weapons were used in seven of the eight high-profile mass shootings since July 2015.

An assault weapon is a gun that incorporates the features of a modern military rifle or submachine gun, enabling the shooter to fire numerous bullets very rapidly, and yet keep control of the gun. Because it’s a semiautomatic copy of the U.S. military’s M-16 rifle, the AR-15 is designed with a pistol grip so it can be fired rapidly from the shoulder or hip; it is designed with a barrel shroud so the non-trigger hand can keep the gun stable during rapid fire; it is designed to accept very large capacity magazines so there is little pause to reload.

The parts or features of an assault weapon are not there to look scary (as the NRA suggests); they are there to make it possible for the shooter to do scary things. With these features, any deranged person can empty a 30-round magazine as fast as he or she can pull the trigger while maintaining control of the gun—and then quickly insert another fully-loaded magazine. Which is exactly what happened in Orlando.

It is obvious that AR-15s and other assault weapons should and can be banned. They are banned or substantially restricted in seven states, and President Clinton signed a law that banned assault weapons in 1994. But that law was limited to 10 years and the conservative Congress of 2004 let it lapse.

Studies have shown that, while it was in effect, the federal assault weapons ban worked. As the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence explains:


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One study found that in several major cities, the share of recovered crime guns that were assault weapons declined by at least 32 percent after the federal ban was adopted. Another study found that the expiration of the federal assault weapon ban likely contributed to increased drug-trafficking related violence in Mexico, which often involves semi-automatic assault rifles sold in the U.S, as noted above. The authors of that study found that after the federal ban expired, there was a 40 percent increase in homicide rates in areas in Mexico along the Texas, New Mexico and Arizona borders compared to areas along the California border. California bans assault weapons under state law while the other border states do not.

Also, there are extremely few murders in the U.S. committed with machine guns, short-barreled shotguns and short-barreled rifles because these guns were effectively banned by the National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934. The NFA was enacted because gangsters were using “Tommy Guns” – the Thompson submachine gun – to terrorize parts of the nation.

But the Tommy Gun is a puny thing compared to modern weaponry. An AR-15 firing the military’s standard 5.56 NATO round has a muzzle velocity more than three times faster than the Thompson and shoots accurately (has an effective firing range) about 10 times farther than the Thompson. In short, an AR-15 or similar semiautomatic versions of modern military rifles are far more dangerous than the fully automatic Tommy Gun, which virtually everyone (including the Supreme Court) agrees is properly banned.

Just as the Tommy Gun and other weapons were banned 80 years ago, the AR-15 and other modern assault weapons should be banned today. And there is legislation to do it.

H.R. 4269, called the Assault Weapon Ban of 2015, would re-implement a prohibition on the federal level. It’s a strengthened version of the 1994 law, cosponsored by 123 members of the House of Representatives (all Democrats).

Nobody is arguing that the United States would solve its gun violence problems simply by banning assault weapons. But why would any civilized nation allow them to be sold, as we do, to anyone? (No other Western nation does.) The Supreme Court rejected an appeal from a federal appellate ruling that an assault weapons ban does not violate the Second Amendment. So there’s no constitutional reason for inaction. The reason is the perceived power of the pro-gun movement and a lack of political courage from everyone else.

Bernie Horn

Bernie Horn is Senior Advisor for Progressive Majority Action and the Public Leadership Institute.

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