Understanding “Assault Weapons”

This is a syndicated post from The American Catholic. [Read the original article...]

This post is a somewhat condensed version of a three post series that I posted on my personal blog last week.

In the coming weeks, we’re going to hear a lot about “assault weapons”. This term is one that makes those who are informed about guns climb the walls a bit. “Assault weapon” is a legal term which was created by a series of gun control laws in the late ’80s and early ’90s culminating in the 1994 Federal Assault Weapon Ban. However, the term was coined to sound like the military technology term “assault rifle” (many even use the terms interchangeably.) Assault rifles were a development in military technology coming out of World War II, and it’s there that I’d like to start this story.

Battle Rifle to Assault Rifle

During World War II the need for a lighter gun suitable for rapid fire became increasingly obvious. The roughly .30 caliber battle rifles that were standard issue for all WW2 armies fired very powerful cartridges and were accurate out to distances over 600 yards.  However, although the rifles were technically accurate at such long distances, few soldiers had the skill to am the well at long range, and the vast majority of battlefield shooting was conducted at distances of 300 yards or less.  Moreover, in WW2′s highly mobile tactics, the ability of infantry soldiers to lay down effective suppressing fire had become important.  For most of the war this was achieved through specialization.  Most infantry soldiers carried full size battle rifles like the American semi-automatic M1 Garand and the German bolt action K98, while a smaller number of soldiers were issued sub machine guns — lighter weapons which could shoot in fully automatic (firing continuously as long as the trigger was held down) or burst mode (firing bursts of 3-5 shots every time the trigger was pulled.)  To make then easy to handle (and allow them to carry more rounds) sub machine guns shot smaller, pistol cartridges rather than a full size rifle cartridge and were thus suitable only for short range.

Tom Hanks holding a Thompson
Sub Machine Gun (chambered for the
.45 APC pistol cartridge) in
Saving Private Ryan

Military technologists were convinced that a cross between a full sized battle rifle and a sub machine gun was needed. Such a gun would shoot a rifle cartridge, but a lighter one which would not have as much recoil as a high power .30 caliber round. It should also be capable of shooting in burst or fully automatic mode as well as semi-automatic mode (one shot for each pull of the trigger.)

Germany produced the first true “assault rifle” near the end of World War II, the Sturmgewehr 44. It shot a shortened .30 caliber bullet with a lighter charge of powder behind it, making the recoil lighter and the ammunition cheaper to produce and lighter to carry, and it could shoot either in semi-auto or full-auto mode. By late 1943, however, the tide was already turning against Germany and its manufacturing capacity was waning. Only half a million were ever produced (compared to over 14 million of their full size K98 Mauser bolt action battle rifle.) However, it provided the inspiration for Mikhail Kalashnikov’s development of the AK-47 in Russia after the war. The AK-47 also used a light .30 caliber cartridge and selective fire (the ability to fire either semi-auto or full-auto.) The design became the standard Russian infantry rifle in 1949 and went on to become perhaps the most widely produced rifle design in history.

Sturmgewehr 44
AK-47
The 5.56x45mm round shot by the M16 (left)
next to the 7.62x51mm shot by the M14.

The United States was comparatively late in adopting an assault rifle . After World War II the US sought to improve on the M1 Garand and in 1959 adopted the M14. The M14 did have selective fire and accepted a large detachable magazine.  However, the M14 still fired a full size .30 cartridge, the 7.62×51mm NATO. The rifle had many fans and continues to be used to this day by US soldiers and marines who are designated marksmen, but the 7.62×51mm NATO proved too high powered a cartridge to be practically shot in burst or full auto mode, and the rifle itself was heavy. As a result, the US Army adopted the M16 for jungle combat in 1963 and in 1969 made the M16 the standard service rifle. The M16, made with an aluminum receiver and a plastic stock, was five inches shorter and three pounds lighter than the M14 and it shot a much smaller cartridge, the 5.56×45mm NATO, with a .22 caliber bullet weighting about a third as much as the .30 caliber bullet of the 7.62×51mm NATO.

Because the bullet is so light and travels at such high velocity, it is extremely accurate even at long distances. However, due to its light weight it packs only half as much energy as full size .30 caliber rounds. This makes the M16 much more comfortable to fire, especially rapidly, which is the purpose of the “assault rifle” concept, however troops have in some conditions complained that it lacks “stopping power” and in Iraq and Afghanistan many units have a designated marksman with an M14 for situations in which a heavier weapon is needed. For the same reason, many hunters shun the civilian version of the round (the .223 Remington), believing that it is too small to humanely kill deer and other full size game. The round is often found, however, in the “modern sporting rifles” which are similar in appearance to military designs. For the recreational shooter, the light rounds fired by military assault rifles are often preferred because they have fairly light recoil, are highly accurate at the 100-200 yard distances found at most rifle ranges, and because ammunition is far less expensive than the larger high powered hunting rounds.

Military technology has continued to develop, but all standard service rifles since the 1960′s have been variations on the assault rifle concept.  The standard US service rifle is the M4 Carbine, a slightly modernized version of the M16 design.

M4 Carbine

Military to Civilian

Military and civilian gun technology have always advanced hand in hand. Cartridge repeating rifles and revolvers were introduced for military use during the Civil War and proceeded to become wildly popular on the civilian market during the following 50 years. After World War One, bolt action rifles (mainly based on military designs) became the standard civilian rifles and semi-automatic pistols (many based on military pistols like the Colt .45 and the German 9mm Luger) became increasingly popular. After World War II, rifles from the war or based on designs used during the war became popular for civilian use. However, assault rifles were, by definition, excluded from the US civilian market because the 1934 Firearms Act had banned civilian ownership of machine guns in the US (except with very expensive and onerous licensing). Thus, any rifle with selective fire was automatically illegal for civilian US ownership. As early assault rifles began to make their way onto the US market (either as military surplus or with civilian models of military weapons)they had to be modified in order to permanently remove any burst fire or automatic fire features. This means that any gun sold legally to civilians in the US does not fit the military definition of an assault rifle, since it lacks a selective fire feature. It is simply a “military-style” rifle which shoots a lower power rifle cartridge the same as the cartridges used by real military assault rifles.

When Colt got the contract to build the M16 for the US military, it also released a civilian model, the AR-15. (AR stands for Armalite Rifle, Armalite having been the manufacturer which originally developed the design and sold it to Colt.) The AR-15 was different from its military cousin the M16 in that it did not have a selective fire feature, and several internal components of the rifle were modified in order to make it harder for enterprising owners to modify the gun in order to make it into a fully automatic machine gun. A few other manufacturers offered civilian rifles based on the M16 design (and all civilian rifles based on this design are loosely referred to by shooters as “AR” rifles, even though “AR-15″ is a trademark of Colt) but these guns were not widely popular.

Arguably, the main reason for this is that civilian rifles based on military designs fired cartridges which most hunters considered to be too light for hunting. Indeed, the .223 Remington cartridge which is fired by the AR-15 is not allowed for hunting deer and other full size game in some states, because it is believed that it is too small and low powered to kill humanely. The primary hunting use of the .223 (for which it was popular prior to its adoption by the military) was “varmint hunting”. Ranchers used these high velocity, highly accurate but small cartridges to shoot pests like prairie dogs, coyotes and the like at long distances.

As the Cold War wound to a close and the iron curtain came down, the governments of Eastern Europe found themselves pressed for cash and sitting on huge arsenals of aging military rifles, not just assault rifles but even millions of bolt action Mausers and Mosin-Nagants dating back to World War II and before. They began to sell these rifles on the international market. Western-made civilian versions of military rifles (such as the Colt SP-1, the AR-15 sold during the 70s and 80s) had been fairly expensive. These communist block guns, however, were far cheaper, and there was also dirt cheap surplus ammunition being sold for them.

At the same time, AR-15 type rifles benefited from the popularity of the Gulf War. In the 70s and 80s the M16 had been closely associated with Vietnam, and many gun owners derided it as under powered, unreliable, over priced, made of plastic, etc. The M16 (and its civilian cousins) had been gradually improved in the 25 years since its adoption by the military and so Gulf War era M16s were genuinely higher quality than their Vietnam era ancestors. At the same time, the M16 had arguably been unfairly derided in the wake of an unpopular war and the low military morale that followed it. After the Gulf War, respect for the military was far higher and respect for its standard rifle rose as well.

Shooting culture was changing during this period as well. Rather than being solely devoted to hunting, an increasing number of shooters were interested primarily in sport shooting at gun ranges and being prepared for potential self defense use of guns. For those who shot almost exclusively at gun ranges, the fact that the cartridges fired by civilian versions of military assault rifles were fairly light for hunting game didn’t matter, and the fact that cheap military surplus ammunition was available made civilian versions of military rifles much cheaper to shoot than standard hunting rifles. Further, for gun owners concerned about self defense, military style rifles offered intimidating looks more likely to cause an assailant to flee while also being compact and light. The lower power cartridges fired by military style rifles also made them more suitable for home defense than a full size hunting rifle.

Arguably the biggest boost to the popularity of military style rifles, however, were the attempts to ban them. Little regulatory attention had been paid to military style rifles until the Stockton Shooting in 1989, in which an alcoholic drifter and frequent criminal named Patrick Purdy bought an AK-47, decorated it and his tactical jacket with legends such as “Freedom”, “Victory”, “Hezbollah”, “PLO”, and “death to the Great Satin”[sic] and opened fire on children at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, CA, which he had himself attended sixteen years before. Five children were killed and twenty-nine wounded before Purdy took his own life. California passed a ban on military style rifles which it termed “assault weapons” later that year, and President George H. W. Bush signed an executive order restricting the importation of military style rifles from outside the country. These efforts culminated in the passing of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban in 1994, which banned the import or manufacture of rifles which certain military style features.

Gun rights organizations pointed out (rightly) that the features banned by the AWB were in the main cosmetic. The controversy focused huge amounts of attention on military style rifles. Shooters who had never thought about trying a military style rifle before tried them and often found they enjoyed them. And anyone who had vaguely thought of buying one at some point snapped one up before the ban was put in effect. As the passage of the ban (which only banned the manufacture and importation of new guns with certain features but did not seek to restrict those which were already made prior to the ban) loomed, sales of the rifles it would ban skyrocketed. Once the ban did pass, many of the less expensive foreign competitors to the American-made AR-15 models became much harder to get while makers of AR-15s quickly modified their designs to be compliant with the ban and continued selling rifles. Thus, due to publicity and the proudly contrarian tendencies of shooters, sales of military style rifles actually went up rather than down after the Assault Weapon Ban. When the ban expired in 2004, sales expanded even more rapidly as the “evil” features became legal again on new rifles. The AR-15 platform is now the best selling type of rifle in the US with so many models available on the market that Field & Stream ran an article back in 2009 listing the “25 Best AR-Style Rifles“.

The Legal Definition of “Assault Weapons”

When legislators sought to ban military style rifles, they faced a problem: Since military assault rifle designs already had to be modified in order to remove selective fire features in order to be sold in the US civilian market, there was not actually a functional difference between the military style rifles which gun control advocates sought to ban and “normal” sporting rifles. The result was a checklist of what gun rights advocates jestingly referred to as “evil” features.  Any rifle that had two or more of these features was legally defined as an “assault weapon”.

However, since these were minor cosmetic features (with the exception of the pistol grip which does have superior ergonomics to the more traditional stock comb grip) the solution was simply to remove the other offending features. Thus, while the above AR-15 could not have been manufactured under the AWB, the one below remained legal:

As the re-design of the rifles during the ban made clear, the features banned were in no way essential to the operation of the rifle. A flash suppressor may be useful for Navy SEALS conducting a night attack, but it makes no difference one way or another on the gun range or in committing a crime. A folding stock may make a carbine slightly more compact, but it certainly doesn’t make it small enough to stuff down one’s pants when going to hold up a liquor store. And the last time there was a deadly bayonet attack on US soil was probably during the Civil War. The only element of the law (one which applied to all guns, not just to “assault weapons”) which might arguably make a gun “less deadly” was the ban on detachable magazines holding more than ten rounds of ammunition. Though as crimes such as Columbine show, it’s still quite possible to have a deadly mass shooting in which high capacity magazines play no part. Regardless of what one may think about the need to ban or regulate military style rifles, the 1994 ban clearly achieved virtually nothing.

How Much Are “Assault Weapons” Used In Crime?
The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence takes a fairly standard line on “assault weapons” in its page on the topic:

Assault weapons possess features specifically designed by the world’s militaries to make it easier for the shooter to fire a sustained, high volume of rounds into a wide area. As a result of America’s weak gun laws, these weapons entered our civilian marketplace decades ago, and criminals quickly learned how to exploit their military features.

However, these claims about the widespread adoption of military style rifles by criminals do not seem to align well with the facts. According to a report this year by the Congressional Research Office “By 2007, the number of firearms [owned by US civilians] had increased to approximately 294 million: 106 million handguns, 105 million rifles, and 83 million shotguns.” (page 8) However, according to the FBI’s uniform crime report, only 3.6% of murders are committed using rifles, a number that would include both “assault weapons” and more traditional rifles. Rifles were outranked in numbers of murders committed in 2010 by handguns (60.2% of murders), knives (13.1%), fists, kicking and other uses of the human body (5.7%), blunt objects (4.2%) and shotguns (3.7%). Another way to think of this is: Although there are roughly the same number of rifles and handguns available in the US, handguns are used in homicides at a rate nearly 17 times that of rifles.

A 2004 report prepared for the National Institute of Justice to assess the effectiveness of the (then expiring) Federal Assault Weapon Ban wrote:

Numerous studies have examined the use of AWs in crime prior to the federal ban…. A compilation of 38 sources indicated that AWs accounted for 2% of crime guns on average (Kleck, 1997, pp.112, 141-143).


Although each of the sources cited above has limitations, the estimates consistently show that AWs are used in a small fraction of gun crimes. Even the highest estimates, which correspond to particularly rare events such mass murders and police murders, are no higher than 13%. Note also that the majority of AWs used in crime are assault pistols (APs) rather than assault rifles (ARs). Among AWs reported by police to ATF during 1992 and 1993, for example, APs outnumbered ARs by a ratio of 3 to 1 (see Chapter 6).

From all of these, it would seem that military style rifles simply are not used that much in crime. This should not actually be all that surprising. The reason why the modern assault rifle is such an effective military weapon is that it is able to deliver accurate fire (and do so rapidly enough to allow a single soldier to tie down multiple enemy soldiers) at a distance of up to several hundred yards. This function (delivering accurate fire out to several hundred yards) is useful to civilian sport shooters as well, but it is of no use to criminals, who generally are using guns at a distance of just a few feet. That is why handguns are favored by criminals. Long distance accuracy and even rate of fire are not nearly as important in crime.  Indeed, in most crimes employing a gun, the gun is not even fired; it is used as a threat.  Far more important to criminals is the ability to carry a gun without it being seen until it is produced. Rifles, however military in appearance, do not fit well in a pocket.

Compactness is also the reason why handguns are primarily used by civilians in self defense. According to the same Congressional Research Office report cited above (page 13):

Another source of information on the use of firearms for self-defense is the National Self-Defense Survey conducted by criminology professor Gary Kleck of Florida State University in the spring of 1993. Citing responses from 4,978 households, Dr. Kleck estimated that handguns had been used 2.1 million times per year for self-defense, and that all types of guns had been used approximately 2.5 million times a year for that purpose during the 1988-1993 period.

This would suggest that while handguns are used in 89% of murders that are committed with guns, they are also used in 84% of cases of self defense. (As with the use of guns in crime, in the majority of cases of self defense, the gun is never fired, it is only drawn as a threat.)

Military rifles do seem to hold an attraction to some people bent on mass kills, as shown by the use of AR-15 rifles by the killers at Aurora, CO and Newton, CT. However, these cases are incredibly rare, only a handful over the last decade, as compared to the millions of military style rifles owned and used by completely law abiding citizens. Nor are military style rifles in any way required to perpetrate horrific mass killings as examples such as the Virginia Tech shooting demonstrate. Although gun control advocates tend to emphasize that “assault weapons” are designed to be fired “as fast as possible”, the fact of the matter is that the civilian rifles which are termed “assault rifles” do not fire any faster than more traditional designs of semi-automatic rifles, or than pistols and revolvers. Virtually all handguns manufactured in the last 100 years, and a significant percentage of the rifles manufactured in the last 50, can be fired as fast as the trigger can be pulled. The attraction of military style rifles for mass killers is not that they offer some technological edge in killing that other guns do not possess, it is that their appearance ties in with their deluded images of themselves, allowing them to think of themselves as looking more deadly. In this sense, the selection of a gun with a military appearance is much the same as the selection of “tactical gear” which often serves little practical function for the crime planned, but which allows the killer to imagine himself to be military and dangerous in appearance.

Did the 1994 AWB Reduce Crime?
Murder rates and violent crimes rate did fall significantly from roughly 1994 (the year when the AWB was enacted) through 2000 and have remained flat to slightly down since that time. However, rifles (and thus necessarily the subset of military-style rifles) remained a roughly stable (and very small) percentage of guns used in crimes throughout the period. The National Institute of Justice Report showed some evidence that military style rifles were used less in crimes after the 1994 ban (pages 42-45) however it also noted that since rifle manufacturers came out with legal ban-compliant versions of their military style rifles, the actual number of military style rifles sold went up during the ban rather than down (page 35-36). Given this increase in sales of military-style rifle and the fact that the “ban” did not actually remove any of the existing “assault weapons” from circulation, it seems likely that any small change in the rate of their use in crimes would have been coincidental.

Altogether, the NIJ conclusion that the ban had little clear effect on crimes seems pretty likely:

Should it be renewed, the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement. AWs were rarely used in gun crimes even before the ban. LCMs [large capacity magazines, defined by the AWB as magazines holding more than ten rounds] are involved in a more substantial share of gun crimes, but it is not clear how often the outcomes of gun attacks depend on the ability of offenders to fire more than ten shots (the current magazine capacity limit) without reloading.

Now that eight years have passed since the expiration of the, with sales of “assault weapons” skyrocketing but the number of murders falling, it seems hard to make a case that the expiration of the AWB has had any effect on crime either.

Do military style rifles have legitimate civilian purposes?
The somewhat peculiar rhetorical fall-back which is sometimes executed in the face of this data goes something like this: “Sure, assault weapons may only be used in a small percentage of crimes, but these are guns which have no legitimate civilian purpose, so why not ban them and achieve whatever small reduction in violence that would result?”

This seems like an odd argument in the face of the fact that military style semiautomatic rifles are one of the highest selling types of rifles in the US. With millions of these rifles being owned by US citizens and only a few hundred being used for crimes each year, it seems fairly obvious that there must be legitimate civilian purposes for them. Millions of civilians are choosing to spend $700-$2000 in order to buy these rifles, and very few of them are using the rifles to commit crimes, so whatever they are doing with them would seem to be “legitimate civilian purposes”. As I described in earlier, these rifles are actually pretty well suited both to target shooting and to home defense.

Are military style rifles exceptionally “high power” rifles?
One of the other claims that I often see in news stories is that military style rifles such as AR-15s are far more “high powered” rifles than normal civilian rifles. Coalition to Stop Gun Violence collects a number of quotes from such stories on their “What Law Enforcement Says About Assault Weapons” page:

“We’re literally outgunned. You’re talking about the kind of firepower that can go through vehicles, through vests, and that can literally go through a house.”

“These are state-of-the-art weapons … My firearms experts over here tell me that…no body armor that we have would have saved our officers from these weapons here. I mean, in fact, many of them are capable of slicing through a vehicle. This is just how deadly these weapons are.”

“[A semiautomatic AK-47 rifle] can lay down a lot of fire in an urban area where there is basically no cover from it. You can conceal yourself from these weapons, but they’ll rip through a car. They’ll rip through a telephone pole. They can rip through just about anything in an urban environment. Everybody understands when they read the morning paper that you have to push as much as you can to get these guns off the street.”

It is true that rifle bullets are very powerful and destructive things, often capable of going through walls or piercing the metal body of a car. However, this is the case with all rifle bullets. Indeed, the intermediate size rounds fired by assault rifles are significantly lower power than the rounds typically used by hunters. The 5.56×45mm NATO round fired by the AR-15 packs a force of 1,300 foot-pounds of energy. The 7.62×39mm fired by the AK-47 is slightly more powerful at 1,500 foot-pounds. However, the .308 Winchester, a common hunting cartridge, is far more powerful than either one at 2,600 foot-pounds.  Every common hunting cartridge is more powerful than those used by military assault rifles.  The suggestion that “assault weapons” fire unusually high powered rounds compared to standard rifles is directly contrary to the very purpose of the shift from battle rifles to assault rifles after World War II, which was to move to a lower power (and thus lower recoil) cartridge that would be easier for soldiers to shoot.

What perhaps gives rise to this confusion is that “assault weapon” rounds pack far more force than standard pistol rounds. For instance, the 9mm Luger round (which the ATF reports is the most common caliber of pistols traced by police in connection with crimes — and which is also the caliber of pistol most often carried by police themselves) carries a force of only 400 foot-pounds, a little less than a third of that of the AR-15′s 5.56×45mm NATO.

Is there a legitimate purpose to “high capacity magazines”?
Magazine size is perhaps the number one area in which new gun control legislation is likely to focus. The 1994 AWB banned the manufacture and importation of magazines holding more than ten rounds for any type of gun with a removable magazine. This had the largest effect on semiautomatic pistols. Most pistols made in the last 20 years hold over a dozen rounds in their standard magazine.  (This isn’t because the guns are particularly “high capacity”, it’s just the number that fit in a magazine the same length as the pistol’s grip.)  Military style rifles also often came with a larger magazine holding 20-30 rounds.

Gun control proponents point out that there are very few situations in which a civilian would need to have a magazine holding more than ten rounds of ammunition. Hunters usually only get one good shot at an animal. Target shooting is usually done in sets of 5 or 10 shots. Very few self defense situations require firing more than ten shots.

However, at the same time, very few crimes involve the firing of large numbers of shots either. The National Institute of Justice study on the AWB reported that only 3% of instances of gun violence involved the firing of more than ten shots — though those 3% did account for 5% of gunshot injuries, a slightly disproportionate share.

Gun rights advocates respond with two fairly indisputable points: To the person intent on firing a lot of shots in the commission of a crime, carrying extra loaded magazines is easy and changing magazines is incredibly fast.  With no particular training it takes about a second to drop an empty magazine and put in a new one.  Further, given that there are already, by government estimates, 20-30 million magazines holding more than ten rounds in current circulation, even if the manufacture of more were banned, there are so many already available that the ban would do little other than increase the cost.  An sort of buy-back or confiscation program would be very difficult to enforce simply because of the huge number of magazines in circulation.  As such, it seems very hard to imagine than any ban of the manufacture of new magazines holding more than ten rounds would do anything other than annoy gun owners — something which at times seems to be considered an end unto itself among gun control advocates.

Summing up: In the face of terrible crimes, there is a strong desire on the part of civil society to “do something”. In the coming weeks and months we will see that instinct playing itself out in full force. An attempt to ban or regulate “assault weapons” is likely to be one of the centerpieces of this attempt to do something. However, for all their black and angular aesthetic, “assault weapons” are not different in function than other common rifles. They substitute metal stocks and grips for wood, and they sometimes feature military style features that have little relevance to civilian use (lugs to which a bayonet can be attached, flash suppressors, etc.) but these features do not make them more dangerous. Indeed, the lighter weight cartridges which they share with the military assault rifles which are their technological ancestors are actually significantly less powerful than the standard hunting cartridges fired by most “normal” civilian rifles. The rifles labeled as “assault weapons” are owned by millions of law abiding citizens, and they are very rarely used in crimes. The urge to ban or regulate them is an urge to put appearances over substance.

The original series of posts that this was condensed from can be found here:
Assault Weapons Part 1: Battle Rifle to Assault Rifle
Assault Weapons Part 2: Assault Rifles vs. “Assault Weapons”
Assault Weapons Part 3: Gun Control

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