The biggest weakness in the assault weapons ban of 1994 was how it defined “assault weapon”. The law banned firearms with specific types of grips and stocks, and whether the gun accommodated accessories like flash-suppressors and bayonets. (Because bayonets are such a huge problem.) In effect, the law banned the kinds of weapons people unfamiliar with firearms find fearsome.
We should get over that. If the goal is to decrease mass murder, we should forget what guns look like and put limits on how well they work. We should make them less efficient.
There are three key differences between assault weapons and what most people accept as reasonable firearms for home defense and sport: capacity, rate of fire, and muzzle velocity. Together, high levels of these things give aspiring mass murderers the ability to kill lots of people very quickly while providing little value to law-abiding gun owners.
The absurdity of hundred-round magazines is obvious. Magazines holding more than a few rounds are irrelevant in hunting and personal protection. The argument that they’re necessary to keep government at bay ignores the military’s overwhelming force advantage. The only redeeming value high capacity magazines provide is the joy users get blowing the hell out of old cars or other inanimate targets. (I’ve done it. It’s fun.) However you value that activity, it is certainly not justification for enabling mass murders to shoot 80 or 90 people without stopping to reload.
The evil twin of capacity is rate of fire. A well-practiced marksman can aim and sustain fire at, according to AR-15 owner’s manual, 13 rounds a minute without damaging the weapon. That is far below the AR-15’s technical rate of fire, which is limited only by the human ability to repeatedly squeeze the trigger. A shooter unconcerned with aim or the long-term integrity of his weapon — for example, someone firing into a crowd — can spray 90 rounds in a minute.
Limiting capacity and rate of fire would do nothing to prevent mass murder, but it would reduce the number of casualties. The killer in Dayton shot 36 people in 32 seconds before fast-acting police killed him. Limiting his rate of fire would without question have lowered the number of dead and wounded.
The damage a gun inflicts on its victims is a function of the weight and velocity of its projectiles. Trauma center doctors who’ve treated the victims of assault weapons are aghast at the damage they cause compared to other guns. For perspective, consider that a 9mm Glock Model 19, a lethal weapon by any standard, fires its projectile at 1200 feet per second. A standard AR-15 round travels at nearly triple that.
Limiting muzzle velocity would save not only lives but suffering. A typical handgun damages tissue barely wider than the path of the projectile. High-velocity assault rifles generate a shock wave on impact that pulverizes organs and shatters bones in a path several inches wide. Those who do not die are left horribly disfigured, sometimes facing years of rehabilitation.
The operating assumption appears to be that any new assault ban will look a lot like the previous ban. But any new limit on assault weapons should regulate what matters: rate of fire, capacity, and muzzle velocity. That will have minimal impact on most gun owners. There would still be highly effective weapons for home protection. Hunting requires precise aim, so slowing the rifle’s mechanics to eliminate spray-shooting would have almost no real-world effect. And, since bringing one’s prey down in a hundred-round hail of gunfire could not in any way be characterized as “sport”, the disappearance of high-capacity magazines would be irrelevant to law-abiding hunters.
Gun rights advocates are correct that we will never be able to eliminate mass murder. But we can slow it down enough to give prospective victims a little time to escape or fight back.
Tom Johnson is a writer and communications consultant working in the surprisingly interrelated fields of politics and whiskey in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter @TomSayingThings.