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Rage against the machine gun

| Tuesday, August 30, 2016

This summer’s all-too-familiar mass shootings have once again turned the nation to the topic of gun control. One particular class of weaponry that has been under discussion is so-called “assault weapons.” What is an assault weapon, and why are policymakers talking about regulating them? To answer these questions, it is necessary to look at history.

Infantrymen in World War II fought predominantly with two types of firearms. Some troops were issued battle rifles — bolt-action or semi-automatic rifles firing full-power cartridges. These weapons were highly accurate and lethal but limited in their rate of fire. Other soldiers carried submachine guns that could fire pistol-caliber bullets as long as their triggers were depressed, but were limited in accuracy and power. In 1943, German engineers invented a rifle that blended these two approaches, firing a cut-down version of the German battle rifle cartridge in either fully automatic or semi-automatic mode. The weapon was dubbed the Sturmgewehr, or “assault rifle.” Over the next generation of rifle designs, intermediate cartridges and detachable high-capacity magazines became ubiquitous. The popular civilian variants of these firearms, restricted to semi-automatic fire, are the “assault weapons” that are currently under scrutiny.

It’s important to note that the military origins of assault weapons do not inherently make them dangerous or a valid target of regulation; microwave ovens were also once military technology. Rather, assault weapons are worthy of scrutiny because they are suboptimal choices for most civilian applications. The weaker intermediate rounds fired by these weapons limit their range and lethality, making them less suitable for hunting than their battle rifle ancestors. The large size of a rifle naturally makes it difficult to carry in self-defense, whether open or concealed; when used defensively inside a building, its high-velocity bullets can penetrate walls, increasing the risk to bystanders. The successful defensive uses of these weapons are at best niche applications and could be carried out equally well with another firearm type.

The one category in which assault weapons are unmatched is the ability to put large amounts of lead downrange with speed and accuracy. In contrast to their full-powered battle rifle counterparts, an assault weapon is easier to keep on target during rapid fire. While this is great fun for law-abiding citizens, it’s also exactly what is sought by a mass-murderer. Though they are used in less than two percent of all gun crimes, assault weapons have turned up in the arsenals of terrorists in San Bernardino, California; Orlando, Florida and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as well as spree killers in Sandy Hook, Connecticut; Aurora, Colorado and far too many other places that have appeared beneath the words “Breaking News.” In the absence of regulation, we’re only going to see more of these stories.

A modernized assault weapons bill should be modeled after an excellent law already on the books — the National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934. Passed in the wake of Prohibition-era gang violence, this law severely restricted private ownership of machine guns, explosives, silencers and short-barreled firearms. Though not banned outright, the purchase of such a weapon requires an extensive background check (including photographs and fingerprints), registration and a tax payment. A new bill would elevate assault weapons to this same level of regulation. Neither full-power battle rifles nor fixed-magazine rifles would be affected by this legislation, and the law would not be retroactive.

Contrast this law with the portion of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, passed under Bill Clinton. The bill banned weapons based on their external characteristics, such as rifles with two or more of the following: a folding stock, a pistol grip, a bayonet lug, a silencer, a flash suppressor or a mount for a grenade launcher. Enterprising gun manufacturers simply designed rifles that incorporated only one of these features to retain legal status. Moreover, no part of the law targeted the trinity of detachable magazine, intermediate cartridge and semi-automatic action that made these guns so deadly in the first place.

By this point, there are doubtless those who are chafing at the idea of regulation on Second Amendment grounds, maintaining that “a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Yet the same Constitution contains Article I, Section 8, Clause 16, which gives Congress authority to “provide for the organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States.” The legal underpinnings of the NFA-type law proposed above have already been upheld by the Supreme Court in U.S. v. Miller (1939).

Even given the legal authority, I know this proposal will be a tough sell to gun-rights advocates. Allow me then to suggest a compromise. To ensure smarter, more effective gun policy, it’s time that we also repeal one of the most pointless laws ever penned — the Hughes Amendment to the Firearm Owner’s Protection Act of 1986. This law tightened restrictions on machine guns even further, making it illegal to manufacture new ones. This massive supply restriction caused prices to spike — FOPA-compliant machine guns are now practically antiques and cost as much as a new car. And for what? If assault weapon crime is currently infrequent, crime committed with legal machine guns had been practically nonexistent. Making automatic weapons available fresh off the assembly line to an already tightly-regulated consumer base won’t cause any more violence than it did in the 52 years between the NFA and the FOPA.

The time has long since passed for American gun legislation to be updated. Restricting (not banning) the ownership of assault weapons while eliminating unnecessary restrictions against automatic weapons is the policy which best reflects the modern reality of gun ownership in our society.
Stephen Raab, an MSM Candidate at the Mendoza College of Business, graduated Notre Dame with a Bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering in 2016. He enjoys matching wits with all comers at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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