In light of recent tragedies such as Sandy Hook, and the Aurora theater shooting we have all heard about the horrors of "assault weapons" and why they should be banned. The question is, how much of what is being said is fact? How many people misunderstand the term "assault weapon?" Well the answers may surprise you. There are many common misconceptions about assault weapons and it’s about time to clear these up.
Firstly, assault weapons that are being discussed are not machine guns. One common misconception is that the political buzz right now is about banning weapons capable of fully automatic fire, but those weapons have been banned since 1986. While some people do still privately own automatic weapons, in 1986 the federal government made it illegal to purchase or transfer these weapons. The assault weapons we are hearing about today are semi-automatic; meaning that every time the trigger is pulled one round is fired.
Second, assault weapons are no more deadly than any other semi-automatic rifles. This misconception is very common among people who do not fully understand guns, and rightly so. "Assault weapons" appear similar to military weapons and so, for those who are not typically "gun people" may come off as more deadly than other semi-automatic rifles. The truth is assault weapons are classified based mostly on cosmetic features such as pistol grips or collapsible stocks. A good comparison of a non-assault weapon and assault weapon that shows this is the M1 Garand and AR-15. The M1 Garand is generally chambered in .30-06 caliber that is commonly used to hunt deer and elk, holds 8 rounds, is semi-automatic, and was a very common military issue rifle. The AR-15 is generally chambered in .233 caliber which is often used to hunt coyote, accepts 10 or 30 round magazines, and is semi-automatic. The AR-15 is classified as an assault weapon but the M1 Garand is not.
Another common misconception is that assault weapons are commonplace in crime, but that is just not the case. According to Gary Kleck in Targeting Guns: Firearms and Their Control (Walter de Gruyter, Inc., New York 1997) only 1.8% of gun crime were committed with an assault weapon. What many people do not realize is that handguns are by and far the most common weapon used in crime. So why do we not hear about handgun crime? Generally speaking, it is commonplace where as assault weapons are not. It is not uncommon in large cities to find many examples of crimes with handguns, and in some cities these crimes take place daily. On the other hand, since assault weapons are so rarely used, they tend to make the news when they do show up.
"What about mass shootings?" you may ask. These are much rarer occurrences than compared to under reported drug and crime related shootings, but because of their shock value they tend to stick around on the news much longer. Let’s also look at where some of these horrific tragedies have occurred and some laws that were in effect.
- Columbine CO, April 20 1999: Two teenage boys murdered 12 students and one teacher. Weapons used were two 9mm handguns, two 12ga shotguns, and a Hi-Point 995 Carbine 9mm along with improvised explosives. The carbine may appear to be an assault weapon to some, but under the laws of the time 10 round magazines were the limit. Thirteen magazines for the carbine where found.
- Virginia Tech VA, April 16, 2007: 32 killed and 17 wounded. No long guns where used but instead two pistols and nineteen magazines. Still considered to be the worst school shooting in the US.
- Aurora CO, July 20 2012: 10 killed and 70 wounded. Suspect was heavily armed with handguns, shotguns and rifles. He had rigged his apartment to exploded lending to the idea his intentions where to get police to search his apartment leading to officer deaths.
- Sandy Hook CT, December 14 2012: 27 dead. Man armed with AR-15 and a handgun. Shot several students before being seen by officers that had entered the building when suspect fled and killed himself with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
There are a few things in common among these tragedies. All four were "gun free zones", were pre-planned, and the suspects were all suspected of having mental illnesses. There are also some differences, for instance not all used rifles, in fact the deadliest shooting included handguns with no rifles. Four out of the five shooters killed themselves before being apprehended, two involved explosive devices, and one was not a school shooting. In each case the perpetrators reloaded their weapons showing that magazine limits would have likely not altered the deaths, and were in place for Columbine. The deadliest of the four examples, and the deadliest school shooting in American history, involved handguns and no rifles or shotguns of any kind.
All in all, assault weapons are commonly misunderstood, believed to be weapons of mass destruction, and these misconceptions are only furthered by comments people such as Jesse Jackson claiming that assault weapons can shoot down airplanes and blow up railroads. After going through facts and separating emotion it is easy to see that current legislation against assault weapons will do little, if anything to prevent crime.