The Semantics of Semi-automatics.

In the wake of a spate of mass shootings, national interest has been understandably reawakened in an assault weapon ban, or at least regulation. Putting momentarily aside the fact that people who ignore statutory prohibitions of murder are unlikely to follow any ban, or the fact that some of the “assault” weapons proposed for banning are semi-automatic rifles which fire at roughly the same rate as Wyatt Earp’s 1872 Colt Peacemaker (and, in many cases, with considerably less velocity), the fact remains there exists no precise definition of an assault weapon. This situation is well-suited to emotional reaction which defies logic in its clamor for a ban of what would amount to almost every gun there is. It is equally suited to the popular predilection toward leaping without looking.

The heart of the trouble is that the voices raised loudest in support of assault weapon bans belong to folks who don’t know the first thing about guns, people who would ban anything made of black plastic. Like most well-intentioned but ill-informed pundits, those favoring the enactment of a ban prior to a definition of banned items give thought to form first, function later, and would see the creation of dangerously over-broad laws – and, as a matter of history, over-broad laws are ripe for abuse. America’s 1994 Assault Weapons Ban (part of that year’s Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, 18 U.S.C. 921) specified only semi-automatic weapons, which category includes most shotguns used in duck hunting (and would also outlaw Earp’s Colt, which fired a bullet per trigger pull).

Josh Sugarmann, author of 1988’s Assault Weapons and Accessories in America, described the trouble accurately: “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 for public support for restrictions on these weapons.” Mr. Sugarmann was, notably, an early gun control activist, a role to which he did credit in citing as a source of support for assault weapon bans “the public’s confusion.”

That confusion is dangerous. It smooths the way for a ban on guns meant for anything but assault, born of ignorance and fear. Are there dangerous weapons manufactured with which the public at large has no business? Certainly. Fully automatic weapons have no place in the home; nor do magazines which accommodate in excess of ten rounds, silencers or sawed-off barrels. But to ban weapons because of their appearance, rather than their function, is like a fear of mean-looking dogs… simultaneously understandable and illogical. Banning an entire category of personal property with no thought to definitive distinctions within that category is less understandable.

Note: Your editorial staff’s opposition to over-broad assault weapon bans is less the result of any affection for guns – though we own a few – and more the product of distaste for (and fear of) government by reckless emotion.

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