On Banning Assault Rifles

Before you ask:  No, I’m not making a specific comment about the President’s recent executive orders about weapons sales.  I’ve been trying to find out more about the details and I’ve been having very little luck; the text at WhiteHouse.gov is still imprecise.  We’ll probably have to wait until the State of the Union next week to get the complete package.

No, this is about something someone said about how even Reagan was against every Tom, Dick, and Harry owning an AK-47.  My response was, of course, the sort of kneejerk one that I use when someone misuses “your” or “you’re” — short, pithy, provocative, and yet somewhat lacking in substance. Here’s a better one:

The philosophical difficulty that I personally have with banning “assault rifles” is the following question:

Where do you draw the line?

Look — a bayonet lug is never going to hurt anyone, and yet we have laws against them.  If magazine capacity and ease of round feeding are the issue, there’s a way to deal with those aspects specifically.  But picking on the AK-47 just because it looks sexy (or evil — pick your own descriptor) is absurd. We might as well ban all firearms containing wood, or with checkered grips, or made in Kansas.

It’s a truism that any complex problem should be addressed by a complex solution.  Put another way, every tough question has several simple, common-sense, easy to understand wrong answers.  For example, we could just ban all guns and never mind about the amendment; alternately, we could mandate universal firearm possession and training as a requirement for citizenship.  Both are simple solutions, both are potentially effective, and both are the wrong answer.  So what’s the right answer?

In order to figure that out, we should examine the details of the specific question.  We ought to know as much about it as we can, and we ought to study it in the context both of the functional aspects of firearms and of the society in which we live.

So What Is An AK-47?

During the second World War, Russian soldiers found themselves using rifles vastly inferior in quality to their German opponents.  A program was soon instituted to remedy this, and the AK-47 was the eventual result.

From a practical standpoint, the AK-47 is a highly efficient firearm. It’s accurate, easy to clean, and reliable under the most absurd conditions known to man. It was designed to be manufactured by a low-tech plant and to be functional after horrific neglect. There’s a desert model that was designed to be buried for six months in sand, dug up, cleared, and to be ready to fire in seconds — and still be reliable. It’s a masterpiece of engineering.

Compare it to a bolt-action Mauser, and you’ll find it to be a full order of magnitude cheaper to produce, much easier to maintain, nearly as accurate, with a round that’s heavy enough for most targets yet far less expensive to produce than a standard 7mm or 8mm.

The Soviet Union mass-produced these weapons for decades, and they were distributed freely to revolutionary groups across the globe.  As of 2004, of the estimated 500 million firearms in the world, one in five was in the Kalashnikov family and one in six an AK-47.  (More details can be found here; it’s a good read, if a bit dry.)

The AK is indeed a foolish choice for home defense (as is any long arm aside from a shotgun) but in my opinion it would make a near-perfect hunting rifle.

And yet we fear it. Why?

Most semiautomatic handguns are just as easy to fire, more readily concealable, have similar magazine capacities, reload quickly, fire a similar round, deal similar damage, and are used in violent crimes by that curious animal, your modern thinking criminal. They’re employed in most gang shootings and in most suicides. They are the drug dealer’s second weapon of choice after a high-caliber lawyer.

But semiautomatic handguns are perfect for home and personal defense, so we cannot outlaw them. We can’t even consider it in a public forum. (It’s arguable that we ought to, but that’s another topic entirely.)

Automatic-action shotguns (that’s semi-auto) are useful for bird hunting, and with the proper ammunition they’re ideal for home defense — buckshot doesn’t penetrate walls all that easily, so it’s a wiser choice in the suburbs or in a condo.

But shotguns are often employed in robberies. Those massive bores are extremely intimidating, and for-profit criminals appreciate the power of intimidation.

Compare the statistics of either with those of the AK-47, or the SKS, or the AR-15, and you’ll find that shotguns and semiauto handguns are far more likely to be used in committing violent crimes. They’re far more likely to be used for suicides. They’re far more likely to be used to kill people.

So why do politicians and the media target military rifles?

Because they’re sexy, which means some people will readily agree and others will instantly disagree based on emotions.  So-called “assault weapons” look scary. That makes them easy targets. They are so very easily vilified by people with political agendas that they’re the go-to gun to ban.

Because it creates public discussion, which polarizes the electorate and gets donations and votes for politicians. Yes, most politicians really are that manipulative, that cynical. More particularly, most of the people whose job it is to get politicians elected are that good at their job but not especially talented at running countries.

They’re also very popular in video games that promote lawlessness, in popular music that does the same, in movies that do the same. Why?  For the same reason:  Because they’re sexy, and sexy sells.

It is this very popularity which makes them desirable for those who wish to act out violently, for the school shooter or would-be terrorist, for the random nutjob who wants to choose “death by cop” for his tombstone.

Also, some folks, mostly non-politicians, don’t think things through. (I don’t refer particularly to you the reader, but instead to most of us in general.  The electorate, or the media market.)

The Bottom Line

Personally, I think we’re going at this problem from the wrong direction.

We need to examine the impact of violence in media on the national psyche, and we need to address this directly.  It’s a far greater contributor to inappropriate violence than is the existence of, for example, a bayonet lug.

Oh, it’s a wise thing to put controls on some weapons. That’s evident; we don’t need our neighbors using grenade launchers or bazookas or crew-served M-60s. Schmeissers and Uzis and Tommy guns properly ought to be out of the hands of the general public. Restricting military-action rifles to ten or fifteen round clips and installing a “bullet button” — that’s potentially reasonable. Mandating gun safes and trigger locks? Not at all out of the question.

But vilifying guns because they work efficiently, because they look sexy? It’s dumb.  It’s counterproductive.  It will interfere with an intelligent dialogue from both — no, from ALL sides of the issue.

Bottom line?  It gets people killed.  Stop doing it.

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