Last week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced a new, supposedly improved version of the federal "assault weapon" ban that expired in 2004. But like that earlier law, which the California Democrat also sponsored, Feinstein's bill prohibits the manufacture and sale of guns based on characteristics that have little or nothing to do with the danger they pose.
Although arbitrary distinctions are a defining characteristic of "assault weapon" bans, recent polls indicate that most Americans support them. New survey data suggest one possible explanation: Most Americans don't know what "assault weapons" are.
Feinstein's bill would ban "157 dangerous military-style assault weapons" by name, along with other guns that meet certain criteria. A rifle is considered an "assault weapon," for example, if it has a detachable magazine and one or more of these "military characteristics": a pistol grip or forward grip, a grenade launcher or rocket launcher, a barrel shroud, a threaded barrel, or a folding, telescoping or detachable stock.
The New York Times reported that Feinstein's bill would "ban certain characteristics of guns that make them more lethal." But how exactly do these features -- a threaded barrel, say, or a grenade or rocket launcher without grenades or rockets (both of which are banned for civilian use) -- make a gun "more lethal"? The distinguishing characteristics of "assault weapons" are mainly cosmetic and have little or no functional significance in the context of mass shootings or ordinary gun crimes.
CNN made an even bigger mistake, claiming the bill is aimed at "rifles capable of firing multiple rounds automatically." In reality, the bill has nothing to do with machine guns such as those used by the military, which fire continuously (or "automatically") when you pull the trigger and are already tightly restricted by federal law; it deals only with semiautomatics, which fire once per trigger pull.
Perhaps we should not be too hard on CNN, since President Obama, who supports a new ban on "assault weapons," also seems to think they are machine guns, referring to them as "AK-47s" and "automatic weapons." Contrary to the impression left by such descriptions, "assault weapons" are not distinguished by their rate of fire, the number of rounds they hold or the caliber of their ammunition.
A Reason-Rupe Public Opinion Survey conducted this month suggests such misconceptions are common. After asking the 1,000 respondents if they thought people should be "prohibited from owning assault weapons," the survey (which is sponsored by my employer, the Reason Foundation) asked half of the sample to "describe an assault weapon." The answers are illuminating.
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