Was Adam Lanza’s Bushmaster Rifle an Assault Weapon?

In the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary school murders, many are calling for a ban on assault weapons. Sale of “assault weapons,” as defined in federal law, was prohibited from 1994 to 2004, and politicians and editorialists across the U.S. are calling for a reinstatement of the ban. To take just one of countless examples, the Minneapolis Star Tribune editorialized on Monday, “Ban assault weapons.”

In fewer than 10 horrible minutes last Friday morning, a gunman took the lives of 26 people, including 20 small children — before taking his own life.

That he could do that much damage that quickly speaks volumes about a major American problem with guns. No one, other than police and the military, should have access to that kind of firepower. Not hunters. Not collectors. Not recreational target shooters. No one.

The Star Tribune editorialists apparently assume that one needs an “assault weapon” to fire enough rounds to kill 26 people in ten minutes. We don’t know how many rounds Lanza fired, but let’s assume it was five per victim, or a total of 130. That works out to 13 per minute, or one every 4.6 seconds. Pretty much any gun can shoot that many rounds in ten minutes; certainly any ordinary handgun can. What if you need to change magazines? I’ve never used a Bushmaster rifle, but you can replace an empty magazine with a full one on a typical semiautomatic pistol in less than five seconds.

So there is nothing about Lanza’s rate of fire that suggests the need to regulate or ban any particular style of firearm. But all of that is by way of preface. The many observers who are calling for a renewed ban on assault weapons apparently believe that the rifle that Lanza used was an assault weapon. Is that assumption correct? There are three possible answers; take the quiz:

* Yes
* No
* Maybe

The correct answer is “Maybe,” or, more specifically, “Maybe, but probably not.” The specific model of the Bushmaster rifle has not been publicly disclosed, and without knowing that we cannot tell whether it is an assault weapon as defined in the defunct federal law. (The phrase “assault weapon” has no meaning apart from the federal law; it was invented by politicians for political reasons.) We can guess that it probably isn’t, since Connecticut already bans the sale of “assault weapons,” and there is no indication that Nancy Lanza bought or owned her guns illegally.

As Bob Owens explained at PJ Media, the federal law defined “assault weapons” by reference to a list of arbitrary and mostly cosmetic features of firearms. Thus, this rifle is an “assault weapon:”

But this rifle is not an assault weapon:

Some Bushmaster rifles are assault weapons under the defunct federal definition, others are not.

What is remarkable about this is that the gun control advocates who have, among other things, called for all of the National Rifle Association’s 4.3 million members to be murdered, seem to be completely indifferent to whether their proposals would actually do any good. If someone (like the Star Tribune’s editorial board) is going to argue that the characteristics of the rifle that Adam Lanza used demand that we ban assault weapons, shouldn’t they at least make sure that Lanza’s rifle was, in fact, an assault weapon? And if they don’t care enough to ascertain this basic fact, what does that tell us about the seriousness of their proposals? Are we dealing here with a sincere effort to reduce violent crime, or with mere political posturing?

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