Saturday, December 22, 2007

What is an assault weapon?

Few words are disputed as vigorously as the words: "assault weapon"

I was once reading an interview with a police officer, discussing the prevalence of assault weapons, to my surprise, the only firearms he specified were tec-9's (or clones I suppose). This isn't the image I have of assault weapons, but it was his I suppose.

During the federal assault weapons ban, there was a legal definition of an assault weapon. It distinguished between rifles, shotguns and pistols, and no mather how much gun-rights activists shouted that the name "assault weapon" was decieving, or plain wrong, there was a legal definition.

Gun control groups often weren't happy about the definition either. The violence policy center for one, released many documents full of complaints about the firearms industry easely complying with legislation, and removing the features which made their guns assault weapons. Why weren't they happy about that? The AWB didn't so much ban any frames or recievers (the parts legally defined as firearm), it simply prohibited certain confgurations of "furniture", leaving the actual action (internal mechanics) unaltered; while the use of different accesoiries circumvented the ban on specific accesoiries. The weapons were just as dangerous as before.

Now that the AWB has come and gone, there's no federal definition of an "assault weapon" anymore. How shall we define these? The following applies to rifles, short-barreled rifles and shotguns but not submachineguns or handguns. labeling AOW-classified firearms is obviously impossible. Rifle will be interchangeable with "long arm" for the duration of this text, meaning: a long barreled weapon with a stock.

Describing assault rifles on an intuitive level is simple, but this translates poorly into legal proze.
Assault rifles were introduced to allow soldiers to engage treats both at short and extended ranges. The rifle and its cartridge had to be accurate and powerfull enough to pose a lethal threat at up to 200m, but it also had to allow a soldier to engage enemy forces at short distances where cover was scarce, and fast target aquisition and repeated though accurate fire was necessairy.

This translated into weapons which were select fire: single shots for longer ranges, fully automatic or burst fire for shorter distances. Being heavier than the submachineguns used previously and being chambered in intermediary cartridges reduced recoil to the point where fast fire could still be accurate up to 50 yards (which is a lot further then you might think) under combat circumstances.

Let's sum up what we've got so far:
  1. accurate, but not match grade
  2. select fire
  3. controllable
  4. intermediary cartridge
A lot of people find that there cannot be any civillian assault rifles, because automatic/select fire guns were "banned" back in 1934. But we're trying to define what an assault weapon is ... i.e. : how should the Brady campaign have defined them to achieve their intended goal?
What defines a weapon that is so much more dangerous than say: a traditional hunting rifle?

The original definition included two structural components: Folding or telescoping stocks and pistol grips, do they make a difference?

Folding stocks make gun smaller for storage, but the Nebraska mall shooter had no trouble concealing a rifle with fixed stock, and telescoping stocks don't make a rifle really all that smaller. Simply removing the stock is an option as well, both for storage as for concealment. This isn't so much of an issue.

It's been repeated a lot of times that pistol grips make guns much more controllable, but the light loads used in typical "assault rifle" cartridges don't pose much of a challenge on that front. Keeping the rifle balanced and sights aligned (left hand, up!) is a bigger issue than the recoiling of an "assault rifle" during repeat fire. They do make rifles easier to carry in front of you with the muzzle pointed downwards, rather than lowering the entire rifle and placing the stock underneath the armpit. This may be an issue when hunting, but I do suppose a "spree killer" would keep the muzzle of the gun pointing forwards anyway, and whether he does so with the rifle shouldered, or both hands waist-high, a pistol grip doesn't help at all in that scenario.

Note: firing from the hip is easier without pistol grip, firing with the gun clenched between arm and torso is easier with a pistol grip, and a pistol grip is almost necessairy to fire a gun with a very short stock (like an SMG, not discussed) or no stock (removed or folded)

Pistol grips don't make rifles any more dangerous, or utile to a spree killer, they simply make it more versatile (which is why they are almost standard in military assault rifles)

What does make one rifle more dangerous than another? Impossible to say, almost all types and configuration of rifles have got at least one thing going for them.

Semi-automatic rifles have the advantage of reduced recoil and are eaier to aim during repeat fire. They aren't that fast really, bolt action rifles can have a round rechambered faster than the average person can take aim.
Example in point being the SMLE rifle (WWI). When first used by the Brittish, German soldiers tought they were taking fire from automatic weapons.
Those bolt action rifles tend to be very powerfull and accurate, if somebody with the intention to kill a lot of people would hone his skill with a rifle like this, he could cause some serious damage!

Lever action rifles are often fed by a tube magazine, which doesn't need to be removed to be reloaded, and as opposed to bolt action rifles, can still have a round chambered during the process.
Similar to lever action rifles are pump action shotguns. They can also be reloaded in between shots, and carry the same or greater destructive potential than semi-automatic rifles, especially at short distances. (most spree killing happen in close quarters)

What about the caliber? The intermediary round is one of the cornerstones of the military assault rifle. Light, small but still causes severe injuries due to it's impact dynamics (the 5.56 NATO is notorious for its tumbling upon impact for example)

People have beem killed with almost any caliber of bullet imaginable, any type as well. Low-powered .22's and .25's account for a large portion of all firearms fatalities today. Unfortunately, I don't have access to a fatality rate per caliber.
Gun control groups keep warning us about high power .50 rounds, and a lot of firearm fanatics praise the .338 lapua as being even "better".

I can't definitively determine which caliber is more dangerous than any other, so unfortunatelt, that's out as well.

So here I am, stuck.
What *is* an assault weapon?
Which guns are so much deadlier than others?
and, would there be any point in banning them?

Banning the machineguns that slaughtered people by the hundreds in WWI hasn't prevented todays violent crime, neither did the banning of WWII's SMG's, would it make a difference if we'd ban another piece of "military" equipment? Criminals aren't soldiers after all, they'll strike whenever they have the upper hand in function of the guns they use. Somebody armed with only a bolt action rifle is likely to simply occupy a rooftop across a square, mall or school for example.

This isn't really a valid discussion, so please: stop jacking on about "assault" this and "military" that. You can tacticool it all you want, give it pink furniture or strip it down to bare steel and two spots for holding it, but a gun by any other name can still be used to kill people, as can a knife or piece of plumbing pipe.

Get over it, and focus on the human element will you.

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