The Disingenuous “Assault Weapons” Ban

Gun Rights

On April 25, 2023, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) signed HB1240 into law. The legislation is a sweeping, and flagrantly unconstitutional ban on commonly-owned semi-automatic firearms. The law prohibits a host of rifles by name, including America’s most popular rifle, the AR-15, “in all forms.” The prohibition also targets centerfire rifles capable of accepting a detachable magazine and are equipped with one enumerated feature – such as certain popular barrel attachments, grips, and stocks.

The ban is so wide-ranging that it includes,

A conversion kit, part, or combination of parts, from which an assault weapon can be assembled or from which a firearm can be converted into an assault weapon if those parts are in the possession or under the control of the same person

As gun owners know, parts that can be used to “convert” a semi-automatic centerfire rifle into a so-called “assault weapon” are common and often interchangeable with those used with rimfire and non-semi-automatic firearms. Have a rimfire or bolt-action rifle that utilizes an AR-15 pattern pistol grip or collapsible stock? It would appear that you can’t own that alongside certain ban compliant semi-automatics.

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Aside from fulfilling its role as a California satrapy, what is the reasoning behind this ridiculous attack on gun owners? A candid Inslee stated that part of the goal of the package of gun control legislation that included the semi-automatic ban is “putting the gun industry in its place.” One can imagine that many of the measure’s supporters feel likewise about the law’s impact on law-abiding gun owners.

As misguided as they were, earlier gun control advocates were more forthright and connected to reality than their modern counterparts. Advocates such as Handgun Control, Inc. (later Brady Campaign) Chairman Pete Shields advocated openly for a prohibition on the civilian possession of handguns. In 1976, Shields told the New Yorker, “The final problem is to make possession of all handguns and all handgun ammunition — except for the military, police, licensed security guards, licensed sporting clubs, and licensed gun collectors — totally illegal.”

In his 1981 book “Guns Don’t Die – People Do,” the gun control advocate explained,

It is important to understand that our organization, Handgun Control, Inc., does not propose further controls on rifles and shotguns, Rifles and shotguns are not the problem;

Shields went on to add, “After the handgun, the criminal’s next weapon of choice is the knife…”

Then, as now, the overwhelming majority of firearm-related homicides are committed using handguns. According to 2021 FBI crime statistics, throughout the U.S. almost thirteen times as many murders were listed as having been committed with a handgun than with a rifle of any kind. In fact, more murders were listed as having been committed with “Personal weapons (hands/fists/feet/etc.)” than rifles. Showing that Shields had a better grip on the facts than his ideological descendants, in 2021 the FBI reported more than twice as many murders committed with knives than rifles of any description.

As for Washington, the FBI’s 2021 statistics state that 22 times as many murders were committed in the Evergreen State with handguns than rifles and more than five times as many with knives than rifles. The FBI data show twice as many homicides were listed as having been committed with narcotics than rifles in the notoriously libertine jurisdiction.

Long before the U.S. Supreme Court made clear that Americans have a Constitutional right to own and use handguns in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), gun controllers were forced to face the truth – Americans enjoy having the right to own handguns. In 1976, a Massachusetts ballot initiative that would have prohibited handguns was defeated by nearly 40 points.

Further, support for a handgun ban has decreased substantially over time. For over 60 years, Gallup has polled Americans about a handgun prohibition. In 1975, 41 percent of respondents stated that they supported a ban. In 2021, Gallup recorded an all-time low 19 percent support for a handgun ban.

As their handgun ban agenda stalled, gun control advocates sought to shift focus to anywhere they might be able to advance their civilian disarmament agenda. They settled on targeting semi-automatic rifles, believing that they could prey upon the general public’s ignorance.

In 1988, Violence Policy Center Communications Director Josh Sugarmann explained,

The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons – anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun – can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons.

Despite its disconnection to the reality of violence perpetrated with firearms, this cynical tactic proved more effective than gun controllers’ attempts to prohibit handguns. In 1994 President Bill Clinton signed a federal ban on commonly-owned semi-automatics into law.

During the course of the ban, two federally-funded studies examined the measure.

Faced with the reality that so-called “assault weapons,” are rarely used to commit violent crime, a 1997 Department of Justice-funded study from the Urban Institute acknowledged, “At best, the assault weapons ban can have only a limited effect on total gun murders, because the banned weapons and magazines were never involved in more than a modest fraction of all gun murders.”

A 2004 follow-up Department of Justice-funded study came to a similar conclusion. The study determined that “AWs [assault weapons] and LCMs [large capacity magazines] were used in only a minority of gun crimes prior to the 1994 federal ban,” “relatively few attacks involve more than 10 shots fired,” and “the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.”

Presented with the overwhelming evidence of the ban’s inefficacy, Congress allowed the ban to sunset after 10 years. In 2014, ten years after the ban sunset, the U.S. homicide rate reached a multi-decade low. Sadly, the homicide rate has risen in recent years amidst many cities’ ongoing experiment in deliberate anarchy.

Aside from bad policy, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Heller, McDonald v. Chicago (2010), and New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen (2022) decisions, bans on commonly-owned semi-automatic firearms are legally impermissible.

Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion in Heller made clear that the Second Amendment protects ownership of firearms “in common use” for lawful purposes. Reiterating this point in 2015, Justice Scalia signed onto a dissent from denial of certiorari in Friedman v. Highland Park, in which Justice Clarence Thomas explained,

Roughly five million Americans own AR-style semiautomatic rifles. The overwhelming majority of citizens who own and use such rifles do so for lawful purposes, including self-defense and target shooting. Under our precedents, that is all that is needed for citizens to have a right under the Second Amendment to keep such weapons.

In his Bruen opinion, Justice Thomas made clear that in order for a firearm regulation to pass constitutional muster it must fit within the text, history, and tradition of the Second Amendment right. The opinion stated,

[w]hen the Second Amendment’s plain text covers an individual’s conduct, the Constitution presumptively protects that conduct. The government must then justify its regulation by demonstrating that it is consistent with the Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation. Only then may a court conclude that the individual’s conduct falls outside the Second Amendment’s “unqualified command.”

Examining how to apply Supreme Court precedent to bans on commonly-owned semi-automatic firearms, Constitutional Scholar and Attorney Stephen Halbrook has pointed out that,

Heller and Bruen both establish that the Second Amendment extends presumptively to all bearable arms. Second, banning such firearms is not consistent with this Nation’s history. Indeed, the Supreme Court established that such a ban is inconsistent with this Nation’s history nearly thirty years ago by holding that AR-15 rifles “traditionally have been widely accepted as lawful possessions,” Staples v. U.S. (1994).

So, if semi-automatic bans are stupid policy and constitutionally invalid, why are they pushed with such fervor by gun control advocates? One answer is that gun control advocates are eager to move their civilian disarmament agenda in any manner possible – no matter how dubious. Another is that targeting these types of firearms allows politicians and their supporters to indulge their ugly cultural prejudices. In other words, banning commonly-owned semi-automatic firearms is about putting law-abiding gun owners in their place.

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