The Feinstein “Assault Weapons” Ban: What’s It All About?

Today Senator Dianne Feinstein unveiled her long-promised legislation to ban “assault weapons.” Since there is no such thing as an assault weapon, we will have to read the text of the law to see what it actually does. So far, I haven’t seen the text anywhere, but Feinstein’s web site has a fairly detailed description of the bill, including a list of the 157 weapons that are specifically banned.

News coverage of Feinstein’s proposal has been laughably bad. Feinstein’s bill purports to toughen the 1994 assault weapons ban by reducing the number of “military style” features that make a firearm an “assault weapon,” and banning the gun if it has only one of those features, rather than two, as the 1994 ban provided. NBC tries to explain:

Critics of the last law, which was implemented in 1994, argue that companies were able to easily bypass the two-feature test by simply removing one of the features, and continue producing what was effectively the same semi-automatic rifle.

Yes, because the features singled out by the 1994 law were generally cosmetic in nature. That is true of Feinstein’s bill, too. The New York Times reports, wrongly:

Ms. Feinstein’s bill — which, unlike the 1994 assault weapons ban, would not expire after being enacted — would also ban certain characteristics of guns that make them more lethal.

That just isn’t right. Here is the list of features that make a semiautomatic rifle an “assault weapon” under Feinstein’s proposal:

All semiautomatic rifles that can accept a detachable magazine and have at least one military feature: pistol grip; forward grip; folding, telescoping, or detachable stock; grenade launcher or rocket launcher; barrel shroud; or threaded barrel.

Most of these features have nothing to do with making a rifle more lethal; in fact, the only exceptions are the grenade launcher and rocket launcher, which I have never seen on a rifle. Maybe they exist somewhere. But does a pistol grip or a forward grip, or a folding stock, make a rifle more lethal? Of course not. A barrel shroud adds nothing to the lethality of a gun, it simply prevents your fingers from getting hot if they touch the barrel. And barrels are threaded so they can accept silencers, which make guns quieter, not more lethal. So Feinstein’s bill doesn’t make any more sense than the 1994 act did.

The bill’s dumbest provision, as we have explained many times, is its prohibition on average-sized magazines for pistols as well as rifles. I own a pistol, an Armalite AR-24, that came with two fifteen-round magazines. The magazines will continue to be legal if Feinstein’s bill passes–for me, anyway–but the legislation says that I can’t sell or transfer the magazines. Suppose I want to sell that gun someday: who would want to buy it without a magazine? Presumably a purchaser would have to buy a dummy magazine that fits the pistol but is partly blocked off so that only ten bullets can fit into it. This is beyond stupid.

Congress has passed a lot of dumb laws, but it isn’t going to pass this one. I doubt that it can get through the Senate, let alone the House. Perhaps some modifications to the background check system can pass. So what’s the point? Gun control is part of the Democrats’ permanent campaign. They see a political advantage in pushing for draconian legislation, not because it has any chance to pass, or would do any good if it did, but because it fires up the party’s base in anticipation of the 2014 election. Hence the showmanship and even religious fervor that accompanied Feinstein’s announcement of her legislation.

Sandy Hook was, of course, invoked repeatedly in support of Feinstein’s bill, even though nothing in that legislation would have prevented Adam Lanza’s murder spree. But it is clear that the theory behind the current gun control push is that there is an urgent need to cut down on mass shooting incidents. In asserting that this goal justifies restrictions on our constitutional rights, are the Democrats acting in good faith? I don’t think so. This pro-gun control web site itemizes all of the mass shooting incidents (defined as involving four or more victims) from 1984 to the present. What is striking about the list is how rare such incidents are. Here are the numbers of fatalities in mass shooting incidents during the current millenium, 2000 to the present:

2012: 45
2011: 17
2010: 8
2009: 26
2008: 5
2007: 40
2006: 0
2005: 0
2004: 6
2003: 0
2002: 0
2001: 0
2000: 7

The total is 154, or approximately 12 per year. Note that mass shooting incidents tend to be streaky; the publicity surrounding one begets another. This is why press control would be far more effective than gun control in curbing such incidents.

But seriously: 12 fatalities a year, on the average, in a nation of 315 million? Are the Democrats serious? One of the most vociferous advocates of gun control is New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But in 2012, 55 people were killed by being run over in New York’s subways; many of these deaths were murders, and the death toll exceeded the total killed in mass shooting incidents in any of the last 13 years. So far this year, fatalities have accelerated, and New York is on pace to have 116 subway deaths in 2013. Maybe Mayor Bloomberg should look a little closer to home if he is serious about fighting crime and saving lives.

When evaluating risk, it is always useful to compare a particular threat with the danger of being struck by lightning. Do you worry about being killed by a lightning strike? Perhaps you should; it is a relatively common cause of accidental death. In the United States, approximately 500 people per year are injured by lightning strikes, and on the average, 54 are killed per year, according to the National Weather Service. So you are approximately 42 times as likely to be struck by lightning as killed in a mass shooting incident.

If we were really serious about saving lives, we would disband the Environmental Protection Agency: depending on which statistical model you accept, the EPA’s gas mileage regulations have killed somewhere between 41,600 and 124,800 Americans–at least 270 times as many people as have died in all of the mass shootings in this century.

So, are the Democrats acting in good faith in going after “assault weapons,” or are they just grandstanding for their party’s political benefit? I think the answer is rather obvious.

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