Jacob Sullum

Less than a day after Michael McLendon fired his last shot, gun control groups issued press releases that cited his murderous rampage through three Alabama towns as an argument for reviving the federal "assault weapon" ban. The Obama administration also wants to bring back the ban, on the theory that outlawing the firearms supposedly favored by gangbangers and homicidal maniacs will reduce the casualties they inflict. But there is little reason to believe such laws can deliver on that promise.

Last week, Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, claimed McLendon "needed the firepower of assault weapons to execute his plan of mass carnage." In a joint statement, five anti-gun groups demanded "an effective federal assault weapons ban," calling the Alabama massacre the latest in "a string of preventable tragedies committed with these military-style weapons." They identified McLendon's weapons as "a Bushmaster AR-15-style assault rifle and an SKS assault rifle," which they described as "military-bred firearms developed for the specific purpose of killing human beings quickly and efficiently."

In truth, neither of these guns is an assault rifle, which by definition is capable of firing automatically. Both of McLendon's rifles, like all the guns covered by "assault weapon" bans, were semiautomatic, firing once per trigger pull.

Gun control groups deliberately foster confusion between "assault weapons," an arbitrary category based mainly on appearances, and machine guns, which are already strictly regulated under federal law. The confusion was apparent in news coverage of McLendon's shooting spree, which erroneously called his guns "automatic weapons" and "high-powered assault rifles."

Furthermore, the standard version of the SKS, because it has a fixed magazine, was not covered by the federal "assault weapon" ban. It's not clear from press accounts whether McLendon's Bushmaster rifle would have been covered by the law; the company makes an "post-ban" version of the AR-15 that complies with state laws similar to the federal "assault weapon" ban because it does not have a collapsible stock or a bayonet mount.

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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