Ten Common-Sense Questions About Assault Rifles

It’s natural for us to have an instant demand for a solution when tragedy strikes. Even in the face of natural disaster, we look for someone to blame when things go wrong. And when there’s a shooting, which is a horrific and difficult to understand event, we naturally want to find a way to explain how someone did so much damage in so short a time. The rhetoric lends itself towards the weapon used, and our country swings into an emotionally charged debate over a topic that’s not well understood.

Guns are for killing. People practice with them, and sport with them at target ranges, but they’re really just practicing a martial art that revolves around firearms. One might take up karate for health or for fun, but at the end of the day they’re still studying techniques used to kill and injure people. Very few reasonable people object to a person learning self-defense techniques, however. And it marks the first question into the realm of the second amendment:  does the individual have the right to defend themselves against harm?

The Founders certainly thought so. They thought so highly of this that they set the right to bear arms directly after the right to free speech, and the letters and records of the time confirmed that the authors of the Bill of Rights considered self defense and national defense to be mutual considerations in the composition of the language of the Amendment.

The idea of hurting someone deliberately should be– and is–  anethema to the civilized mind, but a prudent person must recognize that we don’t live in such enlightened times that we can pretend violence doesn’t exist in the hearts of men. We have struggled for all of human history with this problem. There are people who hurt other people despite laws and social constraints. They do it for resources, for power, for territory, for dominance, and sometimes just for thrills.

We still don’t completely understand why there is this destructive spirit present in a small fraction of the population, but we have known one thing for centuries: the only thing that stops a villain from using force is equal force. They have no respect for the law or customs, and therefore laws and customs are no use in stopping them. So if we are to discuss new laws and force new customs, we should ask ourselves what crimes  these regulations will prevent– and what liberties they will curb– before  we adopt them as covenants.

#1: Why are guns even in the Constitution?

The framers of the Constitution knew full well that the security and safety of a family often depended on a quick and ready firearm. Historically, only sworn citizens in England were permitted weaponry at home. Peasants were expected to go more or less unarmed unless the local lord mustered and equipped them from his armory, mostly to prevent armed insurrection among the peasantry. The earliest bans against covert concealment of firearms didn’t apply to the wealthy landed elite, either. This is a mode of thinking that has persisted in England to this day; the notion that the government is better suited for protecting people than people themselves– except for the aristocrats.

When it came time to start discussing the rights of a citizen, it’s not for nothing that the right to bear arms was firmly established following the right to freedom of speech. When the Constitution was drafted, the British occupation and their confiscation of firearms was fresh in everyone’s mind.  How can a person be expected to defend their country if their country won’t even permit them to defend themselves or their family?

Firearms have immense utility as hunting tools, and they’re terrific for sport. But the Founders recognized that they could never guarantee equality to all citizens if they also forced citizens to rely on the government for self-defense. In the earliest days of our nation, there were no patrol cops or officers or mounted sheriffs to come riding at the first sound of trouble. People were forced to rely on themselves and their immediate neighbors for assistance and protection. This hasn’t changed since then; as the saying goes, ‘When seconds count, the cops are only minutes away’.

#2: Wasn’t the 2nd Amendment written about muskets?

Some have argued that “the 2nd Amendment doesn’t apply to modern weapons” but the rifles used by the Americans in the Revolutionary War were far superior to the weapons of the day. They presented an ‘asymmetric advantage’, outweighing numerical superiority and armament alike. The British used smoothbore muskets to exchange inaccurate volleys on the battlefield. These volleys were considered a mere precursor to the bayonet charge; at times, generals offered each other the first volley as an act of chivalry. Hence the long, thin lines of maneuvering troops and the trained fire discipline. Most British regulars were just glorified pikemen.

Of a sudden, decades of British techniques and procedures were utterly unable to cope with a Minuteman armed with a Pennsylvania long rifle. Capable of accurate, effective fire at ranges well over a hundred yards, Minutemen were a serious threat to the regular British army, harassing them in a manner that was considered ungentlemanly by the mores of the time.

Elsewhere in the world, unique and interesting firearms were being built all the time, including the ultramodern Ferguson rifle (capable of firing three times faster than even the swift-loading Brown Bess). Though the rifles were expensive to produce, they were a thoroughly asymmetric advantage over even the legendary Pennsylvania rifle.  So it’s extremely unlikely the far-sighted framers of the Constitution drafted the document with the deliberate oversight of pretending firearm technology would never evolve or change.

#3
Aren’t assault rifles only for killing people?

There’s a mystique around ‘assault rifles’ that leads people to think they’re somehow better able to kill, or turn an incompetent boob into a Verhoeven-esque murder machine. The reality is that winning gunfights is about maximizing your percentages to get the advantage on an opponent who is also shooting at you. A modern rifle has some advantages in a gunfight– but it’s not an asymmetrical increase in effectiveness. Inside of a 25 yard range, give or take, a handgun, rifle, or shotgun will produce pretty close results, all other factors being equal. For up to 100 yards, a shotgun or rifle is preferred, and a rifle only really pulls head advantageously at 100 yards or more.

And what is an assault rifle? In firearms parlance it’s… nothing, really. The term wasn’t coined until the ’94 Assault Weapons ban, and it uses a hodgepodge of terms such as ‘pistol grip’, ‘bayonet mount’, ‘threaded barrel’, ‘collapsible stock’, ‘detachable magazine’, and so on. A weapon identified as an ‘assault weapon’ has two or more of these features. That’s it. If you look at the common list of identifying features, they look suspiciously like items selected specifically to differentiate an AR-15 from any other firearm. The term AR-15 itself only means ‘Armalite Rifle- Model 15’.

These features that are also common to hunting rifles (threaded barrel), shotguns (pistol grip), and handguns (detachable magazine). Some of the features– a threaded barrel or adjustable stock– are of interest to the lawful civilian using rifles for legitimate self defense or sporting purposes. Very few of those identifiers have real effect on gun crime, but serve to confound experts and complicate legal issues. This is the danger of knee-jerk legislation.


On the left is an M1 Garand, standard issue for US military troops… in World War II. On the right is a California- Compliant straight-stocked rifle. Neither of these would be affected by a so-called ‘assault weapons ban’. Both would be just as deadly in an attack against unarmed targets. So would a .38 revolver or a 12 gauge pump shotgun.

#4: We should ban the high-capacity magazines at least, then!

That’s more a statement, but it’s okay, we’ll roll with it.

What will that accomplish? The Virginia Tech shooter used a 9mm Glock, a .22, and nineteen magazines, most of which were obtained legally in his state and were low-capacity ten-rounders. He proceeded methodically in his rampage and had all the time in the world to perform any reloads he need to accomplish, mostly because Virginia Tech was a campus that barred students from carrying firearms lawfully. Bans on high-capacity magazines did very little to slow him down.

In almost every mass shooting we’ve had in America, the shooter used tactical planning and careful execution to maximize the damage they could do with the equipment available to them.  In the early 1900s in New York, a man going through a bitter divorce shot his lawyer and ten other people armed with only a break-action shotgun and a box of loose ammo. He stuck to narrow corridors and stairwells for the majority of his rampage. In the same vein, the Naval Yard shooter found himself relatively unhindered by the relatively low capacity of his pump-action shotgun. Planned attacks often include backpacks filled with extra ammo and equipment– but more importantly, criminals plan their attacks to capitalize on being the aggressor.

Fast pistoleros can reload and fire a handgun in under a second. Most people can reload a firearm in just 3-5 seconds. Too many Hollywood movies show someone heroically dashing out from cover and blindsiding the shooter. Very few people have the discipline to overcome the base-level instinct to run and hide, or the capability to fight an armed assailant. The best way to halt a shooter’s attack is to shoot back at them.  Suppressive fire is a critical part of stopping a criminal actor’s forward momentum. It takes away the advantage of being the armed aggressor and changes the ‘game plan’, forcing the criminal into a defensive role. Limiting a law-abiding citizen into having only ten rounds for self-defense limits their ability to fight defensively much more than it hampers an armed attacker working a tactical game plan.

High-capacity magazines are of benefit to the person interested in lawful self-defense of the home. Many attacks happen in the middle of the night. Who has the foresight to jam a spare magazine into their bathrobe while moving to a defensive position? An AR-15 with a 30-round magazine is almost the ideal home defense platform because everything a homeowner needs is right at hand, including a flashlight for safety and enough ammunition to hold off three or perhaps more armed intruders.

Unfortunately, the slow creep of ‘reasonable gun restrictions’ has borne dangerous fruits.  Inoffensive .22 trainer rifles, the sort used for four generations to teach gun safety, are now illegal because of their ‘high-capacity’ 10 round tube magazines. And these are guns only suited for shooting rabbits, mind. This is the danger of unchecked, emotionally charged legislation.

#5: Why are we allowing these weapons of war on the streets?

What is an instrument of war? Instruments of war are missiles, tanks, heavy machine guns, and RPGs. They’re designed to destroy buildings, deny movement, and allow attacks against an area. An M4 is a personal firearm, meant to help a soldier fight off one adversary at a time. The sole function an M4 has that makes it a ‘weapon of war’ is the Automatic Fire selector switch. And prescribed military use of this setting is not for one-on-one combat, but rather to suppress enemies and deny their movements. Very little modern military doctrine flexes around using individual troop firepower.

The reason we issue rifles to troops is because troops need flexibility to fight anywhere from three feet to three hundred yards away. In truth, the M4– the automatic version of the AR-15– is not a terribly good gun. It’s prone to jamming, it’s finicky about being cleaned, and lugging eight+ pounds of steel around all day is tiring. There are better long-distance rifles, and there are better close-quarters weapons, but the M4 is issued because it’s okay at doing both and requires less training to get a basic level of proficiency. Modern rifles are more effective and more useful than handguns, but it’s not a totally one-sided advantage in the realm of close-quarters combat.

One of the most notorious mass shootings in America occurred in Texas in 1967; the shooter used a bolt-action hunting rifle to devastating effect, firing from the top of a university bell tower. Anyone who has served in the military will tell you that of all the variables that can go into a gunfight, the choice of weapon is dead last after considerations of time, terrain, position, and weather. Tactics tailor to the equipment, not vise-versa.

A rifle is effective in more situations than a handgun; but when you’re fighting against someone who can’t fight back, it’s not a remotely useful metric to employ. It’s like saying you dunked the ball ten percent harder. Charles Whitman climbed into a clock tower at Texas with a bolt-action rifle. The Naval Yard shooter used a shotgun. Both of them tailored their tactics to the weapon at hand and did tremendous damage in the process.

#6: Can we just make it harder to obtain these firearms?

Yes and no. We can make it harder to obtain them, yes, but in the modern era of anonymous internet contact, it’s virtually impossible to keep someone from easily obtaining a weapon.

Research into the issue of criminals with guns shows that the majority of weapons obtained by felons are bought and sold on the black market. Most of the weapons that made it into the black market were obtained via a straw purchase, or stolen and later re-sold to other criminals. Interestingly, relatively few new guns enter the black market via underground sales.  This is not a causative proof for or against background checks. Background checks are important not because they necessarily work 100% of the time, but because in a good and moral society, we shouldn’t outfit violent offenders with firearms. We can’t keep all criminals from getting a gun anytime they want; but we can hinder the process by forcing them to undertake riskier criminal activity to obtain them, with minimal impact on individual freedoms.

Purchase delays and waiting periods have often been cited as a measure for stopping spur-of-the-moment gun purchases by people preparing for violence. But, many mass shooters have been plotting their attacks for weeks or even months. If someone already owns one gun, how will delaying their purchase of a second gun prevent crime? It might certainly raise flags worth investigating, but in and of  itself, owning guns is not a criminal enterprise. As much noise has been made about the ‘arsenal’ of the Las Vegas shooter, humans only have one set of hands and last time I checked, could only shoot one rifle at a time. Two guns or two hundred guns would not have made a tremendous difference.

How do these laws affect a victim who’s recently had a threat on their life? The last person in the world who should be denied a gun right now is an abuse victim, or a family facing repeated attempts at a break-in at their home. If a violent felon is released from prison, some states have no legal obligation to inform their former victims. Finding out that there is a six-week waiting period and mandatory training requirements to obtain a concealed weapons permit is an alarming amount of time to be weaponless in the face of a dangerous adversary. This is why I favor constitutional carry laws; violent felons have little compunctions about ignoring carry laws anyway, and unless we are willing to enforce stop-and-frisk procedures, there’s little way to enforce carry restrictions.

I hope by this point in the article I’ve shown that there’s no such thing as a ‘single, perfect solution’. And this is the other side of the debate that gun control advocates must be able to address. Impoverished people are the most likely to be attacked, but expensive training, ‘may-issue’ permits, and ‘improved’ background checks can be used to very easily keep guns out of people’s hands.

Los Angeles County, one of the densest and most dangerous metropolitan areas in America, issued a mere 347 permits to own firearms in 2015.

Think about that, because that’s the sort of dangerous tyranny that is possible when a right becomes a privilege administered by the state.

#7: What are you, some kind of whack-job conservative?

No, and that raises a point as to why we can’t get anywhere in this country. No one’s having dialogue anymore. If you’re opposed to gun ownership, everyone who champions 2nd Amendment rights sounds like a frothing  redneck. If you’re a responsible gun owner, everyone coming after your guns sounds like an overbearing jackbooted fascist.

Except neither of those perceptions are accurate representations of ‘most’ members of either group. Those are the caricatures at the extreme fringes that somehow keep getting shoved to the front of our media and attention.

And what’s fueling this divide is the rise of people politicizing rhetoric for the sake of their careers. Republicans and Democrats alike whip their people up into a frenzy when it comes to guns, and they spend so much time lobbing insults at one another and repeating those insults to us that people are literally too angry to have a rational discussion about gun ownership. Republicans want to keep their voters angry about it so they continue to donate and support the party with their votes. They paint such a divisive picture that even the greatest candidate in the world is immediately ousted if they’re not 100% pro-gun ownership.

Similarly, the Democrats portray gun owners as being uncompromising, over-proud, and often boorish and crude– encouraging people to show up and ‘support gun control’, no matter how badly misinformed a law or candidate is, or how lacking in knowledge about the topic a person is. They sell their gun control measures as being ‘reasonable’ and ‘measured’, but support extremist groups that are avowedly for 100% gun confiscation as their end objective. When 44% of the population of America represents as ‘Independent’, it’s not fair to let partisan politics determine the course of the conversation.

#8: Wait, is this a post about politics?

No, this is a post about the dialogue we aren’t having as a nation. The largest gun rights organizations refuse to have any discussion about firearms, while the Brady Campaign and people like Senator Feinstein have made it clear their goal is total disarmament and confiscation. Feinstein famously said she’d have confiscated every AR-15 in the country in ’94, if she could have gotten the votes, legally owned or not. And yet, we don’t see many gun-control advocates ready to dismiss their personal bodyguards or armed security escorts. Gun owners have been convinced that all legislation is so abhorrent that it can’t even be discussed, and gun control advocates can’t be bothered to learn anything about the firearms they’re so interested in regulating and confiscating. Most of the laws that are proposed are knee-jerk reactions; many of those laws wouldn’t even have stopped the last shooter, let alone the next one.

So what happens is that the people who’re trying to protect the 2nd Amendment are flailing at the least of measures proposed, because they have seen small, ‘reasoned’ metrics turn into large-scale bans and confiscation. And the gun-control advocates who are for total disarmament couch their arguments in ‘measured, common-sense laws’ that are based more in rhetoric and inflammatory emotional appeal than any real attempt to fix things.

#9: What about psychological screenings and terror-watch flags?

Psychology’s not an exact science, unfortunately. The signs that a psychologist can pick up on as being clear indicators of violent intent are often present in many other social groups– abuse victims, military veterans, firefighters, people who are regularly exposed to dangerous and high-stress situations.

Let’s say we can even predict intent with 99% accuracy, which is Minority-Report levels of accuracy. That means out of 100,000 people who are subjected to a full psychological battery, we’ll flag 1,000 people as ‘potentially dangerous’. But we’ll also mis-diagnose 1,000 people who have no violent intent, and deprive them of civil liberties without due process. This is called ‘adjudication of mental deficiency’, which is a fancy way of saying that we’re mentally unfit to own a firearm. And it goes hand in hand with losing our rights to manage our finances, to handle our own health care, and plenty of other rights and privileges of personal liberty.

The American Psychological Association firmly refused to endorse legislation like this because it puts an impossible burden on every psychologist and therapist in America. There’s no way to be absolutely sure someone will do something extraordinarily violent, and because of the litigious nature of a liability-centric legal system, no psychologist’s practice would survive the first negligence lawsuit following a patient going on a shooting spree. This article nicely lays out the hazards of trusting a system that’s even 99% effective.

Another rallying cry has been ‘Look! Gun owners vetoed a law that could have prevented a suspected terrorist/mental patient/criminal from buying a gun!’ The danger of ‘watch lists’ is not that they violate the 2nd Amendment, but that they violate our 4th Amendment rights for reasonable search and seizure. We established many years ago that Americans are innocent until proven guilty, a cornerstone of our legal and ethical system.  Imagine waking up one day and finding that you’ve lost access to your bank account and your children, were unable to purchase plane tickets, and had your entire personal and medical history surrendered involuntarily to authorities. The lawsuit to get your rights returned could take months or years, and you’d be outed to your neighbors as a ‘suspected’ terrorist or serial criminal. This is an abrogation of one of our most cherished basic rights of equal treatment and opens a dangerous legal precedent for invasive oversight by law enforcement authorities.

#10: Fine, how do we stop mass shootings then?

If we’re looking for one swift and simple solution to stopping mass random violence, we are following an appeal to emotion, not to reason or logic. There is no one, single thing we can do to stop random gun violence completely. And that’s kind of the point of this article– everything being proposed right now is a knee-jerk reaction. ‘Ban immigrants’, ‘Ban Muslims’, ‘Ban assault rifles’– these are all wild notions that wouldn’t have effectively deterred the last shooter, and are very unlikely to stop the next shooter. And these solutions all hold in common the fact that they fly in the face of due process and Constitutionally validated rights.

What we can do is continue to improve the NICS system to ensure that anyone who is convicted of a violent crime is unable to purchase a firearm. We can implement health care programs to make sure people of all walks of life are able to obtain not just psychological evaluations, but actual psychiatric counseling and therapy. We can reduce the cost of prescription medication to help ensure a person in treatment is receiving the care they need regardless of their ability to pay. We need to use our collective social voice to pressure people away from bigotry and intolerant speech– the 1st Amendment guarantees that the government can’t stop White Supremacists from marching, but there’s nothing requiring us to endorse a word they say.

Exposure, safety training, and awareness would be helpful as well. We’ve had 30 years of an ironic ‘war on violence’ in schools. The NRA funds and makes available to any school district the ‘Eddie the Eagle’ program to help teach children how to avoid firearms, what to do if they find one, and in their later years safe handling and marksmanship courses. And yet, very few schools implement any kind of gun-safety awareness courses at all. This is part of a larger problem facing America–  a lack of funding for school programs to help prevent teenage crime. There is a direct, causative link between student activity programs and a reduction in crime in the areas surrounding a school. We need to rally as a community all over America to help keep students and youths active and out of trouble with after-school services and options.

Moreover, we should start treating gun ownership not just as a right, but as a heavy responsibility. At all levels, we should be encouraging people to constantly seek out more training, more diligence, more expertise. Jim Wright, a blogger and military veteran, has proposed a top-down review of the federal laws around guns that emphasize individual accountability for firearms and puts heavy penalties against negligent gun owners. As he points out, “There are no accidents with guns.” We cannot stop people from driving drunk, but drunk driving laws have given us the recourse needed to aggressively change the social permissiveness of drunk driving.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The hardest point to grapple with is that there are some people who are mad enough to do damage, but sane enough not to get caught. Maybe they’re delusional; Whitman had a tumor pressing against his amygdala, and the Naval Yard shooter claimed the government was piping low-frequency noises into his brain. The Beltway Sniper wrote rambling letters about The Matrix and the Mandalay Bay shooter certainly had a family history of psychopathy.

The recurring personality facet shared between almost every mass shooter is a perception of being isolated and rejected by society. Whether the victims of bullying, domestic abuse, or religious condemnation, almost every perpetrator of a mass shooting in the last quarter-century has been plagued by feelings of abandonment and rejection. We’re fine about condemning bigotry in public, but in private we still let our uncles go on racist tirades at dinner and we let our friends make dark jokes about gays burning in hell without challenging them. I’m sure the shooter in Orlando had an earful about the ‘immorality of homosexuals’ growing up; other mass shooters picked targets that validated their feelings of self-hate by allowing them to attack someone, anyone, they felt justified in labeling as a threat to themselves or others.

We don’t need stronger laws, we need a stronger society. We need to stop quietly letting bigotry and racism and homophobia happen around us. We need to object vocally not just to hate crimes, but the casual discrimination of dinner tables and private parties. Men need to reach out to other men. We have a society  that teaches men it is weakness to cry, it is weakness to have doubt, it is weakness to show anger except as violence. We have several generations of men who don’t know how to nurture and protect their loved ones; they only know how to use violence, with their words and fists, to express their frustration.

Unfortunately, while they make up a tiny fraction of gun crime, serial shooters make up 95% of our national conversation about gun control. Chicago saw at least one homicide a day in the first month of January and couldn’t even sustain a 48-hour armistice period. The sad truth is that the most meaningful of gun reforms are slow, rambling processes that takes years, not months to implement; and they would mostly benefit small communities, instead of assuaging the collective national conscience.

It’s no coincidence that every mass shooting we’ve recorded has taken place in a gun-free zone or against unarmed targets. In our zealous push to reduce gun violence, we permitted people to create legislation that deprived people of a most fundamental liberty for self defense. It is, for all intents and purposes, illegal to defend yourself in public with a firearm in Los Angeles– even if you are being shot at.

There are people who live in statistically justifiable fear of gun violence every day in America, as opposed to many Americans who are shocked by the possibility of gun violence. Perhaps it is the first group to whom we should pay attention, and less to placating the fears of the second. We can bend the laws and break the Constitution trying to prevent less than 3% of gunwide murders, or we can come together as a society to make meaningful reforms that would target 100% of gun violence nationwide.

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