The Assault Weapons Ban

by Janine Peterson

The Assault Weapons Ban, Feinstein (and others) Amendment Number 1152 (Senate – November 9, 1993), is due to sunset this year. This law is ineffective and unnecessary, and it should be allowed to sunset as originally scheduled.

There is an unfortunate amount of misinformation around this law. Gun advocates call it the “scary weapons ban,” because the law primarily regulates certain cosmetic features. The law applies only to semi-automatic weapons, not automatics.

This law explicitly regulates the “manufacture, transfer, and possession of certain semiautomatic assault weapons.” These weapons are not automatic. Every time you pull the trigger on a semi-automatic weapon, the gun fires one bullet. Automatic weapons are capable of firing more than one bullet per trigger pull, and automatic weapons are capable of what is called “spray fire,” or unaimed, sustained fire. Automatic weapons, incidentally, are tightly regulated under other, unrelated laws. The assault weapons ban doesn’t affect automatic weapons at all, despite attempts to link the two in people’s minds.

The law begins by stating that it applies only to semi-automatic weapons. The law then describes the other, cosmetic features that rifles, shotguns, and handguns must have to be considered “assault weapons.”

Rifles and Handguns

A rifle is considered “assault” if it has the ability to accept a detachable magazine and has two or more of the following:

  • folding or telescopic stock
  • pistol grip protruding conspicuously beneath the action
  • grenade launcher
  • bayonet mount
  • flash suppressor or barrel having a threaded muzzle

    Let’s look at these features. They are relatively cosmetic features, and they do not intrinsically increase the rate of fire or the lethality of the weapon.

    A folding or telescopic stock makes a weapon easier to carry, especially useful for hunters who may have to carry their weapons for miles before finding game. Stocks are available in any length off the shelf; this law only bans stocks that can change size.

    A pistol grip on a rifle can make the weapon easier to handle, especially for people with small hands, i.e., women. The grip itself doesn’t make the weapon fire more quickly; the weapon is simply easier to hold and aim.

    Grenades are already heavily regulated under other laws, and I can’t recall the last time I read about someone injured by a bayonet, let alone a bayonet mount.

    Flash suppressors do not “suppress the flash” in the sense that most people would understand that phrase. They do not keep the flash from being seen, say, at night as a sniper shoots down from a hill. Even if the sniper were using a flash suppressor, spectators would still be able to see the flash of the weapon and thus locate the sniper. No, what a flash suppressor does is redirect the flash to the sides of the barrel instead of the top. The flash suppressor prevents the shooter from being blinded by the flash each time she shoots. This allows her to aim better by preventing that temporary blindness all of us experience when we suddenly look at a bright light.

    Finally, a threaded barrel has no effect on speed or accuracy of fire; the threads simply allow gadgets like flash suppressors to be attached to the weapon.

    A handgun is considered “assault” if it has the ability to accept a detachable magazine and has two or more of the following:

  • magazine that attaches outside of the pistol grip
  • a threaded barrel that can accept a barrel extender or a flash suppressor
  • a shroud that is attached to or encircles the barrel that permits the shooter to hold the weapon with the non-trigger hand without being burned
  • manufactured weight of 50 ounces or more when unloaded
  • semiautomatic version of an automatic weapon

    The location of the magazine does not effect the aim or lethality of the weapon; all it does is make the weapon potentially appear more threatening.

    Again, a threaded barrel has no affect on speed or accuracy of fire. Adding a barrel extender can increase accuracy, but that is not what is being banned here – what is being banned is the threads that may be used to extend the barrel.

    Heavy guns are no more lethal that light guns and are actually less suited for criminal use than lighter, easier to carry and conceal weapons.

    "High” Capacity Magazines

    The second half of the law bans the manufacture of “high capacity ammunition feeding devices,” or normal capacity magazines. Any law-abiding citizen who wants to keep more than 10 rounds in her weapon must buy a pre-ban magazine. These pre-ban magazines, economics being what they are, are extremely expensive. But many people think the expense is worth it – if you wake up to find a local gang in your living room, all probably armed, and all intent on doing harm to you and your family, how many rounds do you want in your gun? Do you trust yourself to disable each attacker with one shot? Most people, including the police, cannot reliably hit five or six targets straight on with a single shot each, and one hit with a handgun is rarely sufficient to immediately stop an attacker.

    Police officers are allowed to carry high capacity magazines. This, presumably, is because they may need to defend themselves in a gun fight, not because they intend to commit crimes. Law-abiding civilians often have to defend themselves as well, and they not have an artificially low magazine.


    There are legitimate uses of all the cosmetic features and non-cosmetic capabilities that are banned by this law.

    In addition, “assault weapons” were responsible for less than 1% of all deaths of law enforcement officers, even before the ban.

    In short, this is a bad law. No lives are saved. Criminals still have access to guns. Law-abiding citizens are at best inconvenienced and stripped of their second amendment rights and at worst deprived of adequate defense.

    This law bans scary looking guns and allows politicians to feel good that they have “done something” to stop crime. In reality, this law is worse than useless.

    Let it die.