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"Assault Weapons"

Military-style semi-automatic firearms (so-called assault weapons) do not differ materially from non-military style semi-automatic firearms (one bullet is fired for each pull of the trigger) and are no more powerful than other semi-automatic weapons. Further, a bullet fired from a semi-automatic weapon is no more powerful than one of the same caliber fired from a corresponding non-semi-automatic handgun, rifle, or shotgun. In fact most assault weapons are less powerful than hunting rifles. For example, the AR-15 (a semi-automatic version of the U.S. military's rifle, M-16), is a .223 caliber rifle. Rifles of this caliber, when used for hunting, are generally used on small game rather than deer. A smaller caliber bullet is more likely to wound the animal (and allow it to escape and suffer a slow death) than the more powerful .24 to .30 caliber bullets normally used in deer hunting rifles (see this hunting rifle ammunition chart).

Assault weapons are not the weapons of choice among drug dealers, gang members or criminals in general. Assault weapons are used in about one-fifth of one percent (.20%) of all violent crimes and about one percent in gun crimes. It is estimated that from one to seven percent of all homicides are committed with assault weapons (rifles of any type are involved in three to four percent of all homicides). However a higher percentage are used in police homicides, roughly ten percent. (There has been no consistent trend in this rate from 1978 through 1996.) Between 1992 and 1996 less than 4% of mass murders, committed with guns, involved assault weapons. (Our deadliest mass murders have either involved arson or bombs.)

There are close to 4 million assault weapons in the U.S., which amounts to roughly 1.7% of the total gun stock.

If assault weapons are so rarely used in crime, why all the hoopla when certain military-style-semi-automatic weapons were banned by the Crime Control Act of 1994? A Washington Post editorial (September 15, 1994) summed it up best:

No one should have any illusions about what was accomplished (by the ban). Assault weapons play a part in only a small percentage of crime. The provision is mainly symbolic; its virtue will be if it turns out to be, as hoped, a stepping stone to broader gun control.

A genuine assault weapon, as opposed to a legal definition, is a hand-held, selective fire weapon, which means it's capable of firing in either an automatic or a semiautomatic mode depending on the position of a selector switch. These kinds of weapons are heavily regulated by the National Firearms Act of 1934 and are further regulated in some states. (See machine guns.)

However, current "assault weapon" legislation defines certain semi-automatic weapons as "assault weapons." A semi-automatic weapon is one that fires a round with each pull of the trigger, versus an automatic weapon which continues to shoot until the trigger is released or the ammunition supply is exhausted. These kinds of "assault weapons" are sometimes referred to as military-style semi-automatic weapons.

An example of assault weapon legislation is the Federal 1994 Crime Bill. The bill in part outlaws new civilian manufacture of certain semi-automatic assault weapons. It also prohibits new civilian manufacture of "large capacity ammunition feeding devices" declared certain weapons as assault weapons, and states a semi-automatic rifle is an assault weapon if it can accept a detachable magazine and has two or more of the following:

(For the Crime Bill's definition of assault shotguns and pistols, a list of assault weapons, and further legal issues see Crime Bill FAQ.)

[The 1994 Crime Bill expired on September 13, 2004. See Semiautomatic Assault Weapon (SAW) Ban QUESTIONS & ANSWERS from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.]

Assault Weapons: The Weapons of Choice?

The following summary of police statistical surveys is excerpted from Kopel, David B, Rational Basis Analysis of "Assault Weapon" Prohibition. (Kopel's paper contains the citations for these surveys and lists a few more studies as well.)

Gary Kleck, in Targeting Guns: Firearms and Their Control (Walter de Gruyter, Inc., New York 1997), summarizes the findings of forty-seven such studies, indicating that less than 2% of crime guns were assault weapons (the median was about 1.8%). According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, (Criminal Victimization in the United States, 1993, May 1996) offenders were armed with a firearm in 10% of all violent crimes. That would mean less than .20% (one-fifth of one percent or 1 in 500) of violent crime offenders used an assault weapon (1.8% X 10% = .18%).

The Police and Assault Weapons

According to Roth and Koper (Roth), (Impact Evaluation of the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act of 1994, May 1996), "assault weapons are estimated to be involved in 1 to 7 percent of gun homicides". Their study further reports, "In sum, police officers are rarely murdered with assault weapons. Yet the fraction of police gun murders perpetrated with assault weapons is higher than that for civilian gun murders. Assault weapons accounted for about 10% of police gun murders from 1992 through May of 1996 when considering only those cases for which the gun make could be ascertained."

(From 1982 to 1993, of the 687 officers who were killed by firearms other than their own guns, more were killed by .38 caliber revolvers than by any other firearm. Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Guns Used in Crime, July 1995, p. 5. [PDF])

The police view of assault weapons.

Assault Weapons and Mass Shootings

In "Appendix A" Roth et. al found, "contrary to our expectations, only 2 -- 3.8 percent - of the 52 mass murders we gleaned from the Nexis search [from Jan. 1992 through May 1996] unambiguously involved assault weapons. This is about the same percentage as for other murders... media accounts lend some tenuous support to the notion that assault weapons are more deadly than other weapons in mass murder events, as measured by victims per incident. However in Footnote 61 Roth states: "If, for instance, the substituted long guns were .22 caliber, rimfire (i.e., low velocity) rifles (and in addition did not accept large-capacity magazines), then a substitution effect [as a result of the assault weapons ban] would be less likely to have demonstrably negative consequences. If, on the other hand, offenders substituted shotguns for assault weapons, there could be negative consequences for gun violence mortality. "

Gary Kleck in Targeting Guns: Firearms and Their Control (Walter de Gruyter, Inc., New York, 1997) after examining the FBI's Supplementary Homicide Reports for the years 1976 to 1992, reports "the rate of killings with four or more victims was higher in 1976-1982, prior to the popularity of assault weapons, than in 1983-1992. Regardless of the numerical cutoff defining mass shootings, there was no increase in such incidents associated with the increased popularity of assault weapons after 1984".

Dr. Kleck also states that "Oddly enough, mass killings are actually less likely to involve the use of guns of any kind than homicides involving small numbers of victims. For all murders and non negligent manslaughters covered in Supplementary Homicide Reports (about 90% of all U.S. killings) for the period 1976 to 1992, only 48.3% of victims killed in incidents with four or more victims were killed with guns, compared to 62.3% of those killed in incidents with three or fewer victims. This is mainly due to the large share of mass killings committed with arson, which is rarely involved in ordinary homicides."

Incidentally, there are an estimated 4 million assault rifles in the U.S., which amounts to roughly 1.7% of the total gun stock. (Institute for Research on Small Arms in International Security, Assault Rifle Fact Sheet #2, 1989)

Assault Weapons Easily Converted to Full-auto?

Not according to LAPD Detective Jimmy Trahin, testifying before the California State Assembly (Feb. 13,1989):

... over 4,000 guns that came into the custody of our unit last year, less than 120 would be classified as this military-type weapon. Of those, only ten or less than ten were actually illegally converted to fully-automatic machine gun stocks. Why? Because these military style assault weapons of today are not easily and readily convertible without extensive knowledge of modifications to the weapon and/or substitution of available parts. (source)

These miliatry style assault weapons of today are not easily and readily convertible without extensive knowledge and modifications to the weapon and/or substitution of available parts.

Now, in my 12 years within the unit, considering the enormous amount of firearms that we have taken into custody, and that's over fifty-thousand, I would say, and these inlcuded ones from the hardcore gangs, and from the drug dealers, our unit has never, ever, had one AK-47 converted, one Ruger Mini-14 converted, an H&K 91, 93 never converted, an AR-180 never converted. So this media blitz of many of these assault weapons, or supposedly military style weapons are being converted to full automatic is not true. (source) (additional source)

For Further Reading

Kopel, David B., Rational Basis Analysis of "Assault Weapon" Prohibition, 20 J. of Contemp. L. 381-417.(1994)

_____, The Assault Weapon Panic (242K), Independence Issue Paper No. 12-91, Independence Institute.

_____, Assault Ban Chicanery, originally printed in the Washington Times, May 5, 1994, Thursday, p. A18.

_____, Are so-called "Assault Weapons" a Threat to Police Officers?, originally printed in the Sept./Oct. 1997 of The Law Enforcement Trainer, the official publication of the American Society for Law Enforcement Training.

Tonso, William R., Shooting Blind, Reason, June, 2000.

For Viewing

"The Truth About Semi-Auto Firearms."

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