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Assault Weapons Ban is nonsense

Senator Dianne Feinstein is the main power behind the proposal to reinstitute the Assault Weapons Ban - a piece of legislation that was enacted in 1994 and expired in 2004. Her web site links to a good number of research on the topic of effectiveness of the previous ban. Ironically, none of them actually support her point of view. Most say that there is no statistical evidence that AWB had an impact on crime. Some say that the numbers of "assault weapons" recovered from the crime scene dropped, but make no claims about the impact on the amount of violence itself.

An Updated Assessment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban: Impacts on Gun Markets and Gun Violence, 1994-2003

The best work on assault ban's effectiveness is a study done in Jerry Lee Center of Criminology. I have copied it from Feinstein's site because I don't think it is going to be there much longer, considering what it does to her proposal. Here it is.

The study contains an excellent introduction explaining what the ban was, how the weapons are defined, and what the impact on crime it made (none).

Here is a summary of the study.

The ban is trying to define a "military weapon". Unfortunately, it is very hard, so the law resulted in superficial restrictions on external appearance (pistol grips, flash hiders) that do not affect the operations of the weapon. The industry has "invented around the law" almost immediately, resulting in AK copies that did not contain "military" features, but otherwise functioned just the same, and could be used in a crime just the same.

"Assault rifles" are used in crimes very infrequently - so infrequently, that there is simply no way to even estimate the effect of the law.

"Assault pistols" use in gun violence in fact dropped significantly, but they were replaced by other firearms. It must be noted that while "assault pistols" look "evil", - which is probably the reason gangs used them in the first place - they tend to be much less reliable, less accurate, and difficult to use than your common Glock, Sig, or Beretta. There is a good reason that despite their frequent appearance in Hollywood movies, neither military nor police actually use them.

Large capacity magazines use in crime actually dropped. However, only 3% of gun violence incidents actually result in more than 10 shots being fired, so in vast majority of crimes the functionality of large capacity magazines is not essential.

In addition to the study, here are a few other - technical - points.


Large capacity magazines are used in modern weapons not to kill, but to lay suppressive automatic fire. This is the reason for large capacity - in automatic mode a small magazine simply would not last. However, automatic fire is never useful for aimed fire: after the very first shot the recoil deflects the barrel so much that the next bullet hits quite far away from the target. It is used to keep the enemy down when your own force repositions itself. Automatic fire was responsible for this interesting statistic - US military expended 250000 rounds for every enemy killed (source).

For aimed fire, the fire designed to actually kill, military weapons use semi-automatic mode. Ironically, this is the only mode available in civilian firearms.

For semi-automatic fire, capacity is not important. In fact, it may be detrimental - 30 rounds of ammunition adds a pound of weight to the rifle, and makes it harder to carry around and aim. Weapons with large magazines are more prone to jamming, because the force that the spring exerts varies greatly between full and empty magazines, and so rounds are pushed towards the bolt with different force.

Before the advent of AK-47 and M16, most of the military weapons actually had relatively small magazines. For example...

  • 1911 was THE pistol US military used throughout most of 20th Century. Its magazine holds 8 rounds.
  • M1 Garand, "the greatest implement of battle ever devised," according to General George Patton, has magazine capacity of 8 rounds as well.
  • SVD, the famed Soviet sniper rifle, uses 10-round magazines. So do marksmen rifles in all communist block militaries.
  • Makarov, Soviet military pistol has a capacity of 8 rounds. Tokarev, also 8 rounds.
  • P-38/P-1, German military and police pistols, 10 rounds. Luger, another German military pistol, 8 rounds.
  • Browning Hi-Power, the ultimate high capacity (this is what 'hi' stands for) pistol used by German military alongside P-38 and Lugers in WWII had an unusually large 13 round magazine.

As it happens, US marksmen do not use semi-automatic rifles at all. They use bolt action rifles because they are more accurate, and more reliable. These rifles usually have magazine capacities of only 4-5 rounds.

These weapons were used to fight world's bloodiest wars of the last century - WWI and WWII - and kill millions of people. Unlike the guns that we are proposing to ban, they have proven their effectiveness beyond any reasonable doubt. Yet they will continue be legal while we focus on guns that aren't any more dangerous.

Stopping power

Another interesting and relatively unknown fact about modern military firearms is that the semi-automatic battle rifles are not designed to kill - they are designed to incapacitate. A dead soldier results in several really pissed enemies bent on revenge. A wounded soldier requires several of his comrades to leave the battlefield (and expose themselves) to evacuate him.

On the other hand, modern hunting rifles are designed to kill. They fire big bullets that can drop very large game, and are certain to kill a human. A crazy guy spraying the crowd with bullets from AR-15s will would more, but kill fewer people than that same crazy guy with a scoped hunting rifle on the rooftop above a busy intersection, picking his victims from 500 yards away in four directions.

Capital, political and not

In 2011 the total of 63 people were killed in high-profile mass murder incidents. While any loss of life is regrettable, mass murders are not even close to real dangers to the lives of average Americans.

Here are the real (preventable) killers. (Source)

Smoking tobacco435,000
Infectious diseases75,000
Medical errors44,000 to 98,000
Traffic collisions43,000
Suicides (firearms)16600
Homicides (firearms)10,800

63 people killed in mass murder is not even a blip on this radar - yet we are prepared to invest billions of dollars (guards in every school) and untold amount of political capital (costing Democrats the votes of the very people their economic policies benefit the most) to try and prevent them. If you spend these money on any of the above real problems, putting money in cancer research, smoking prevention programs, driver ed, whatever - you will save ORDERS of magnitude more lives.


So what is going on here? Why at least some of our public servants are committed to something that is both expensive and ineffective?

Well, unfortunately, it is just one of the recent indicators of how completely broken our political process is. It looks like every time there is a decision that needs to be made, our government will find a way to screw it up - and do it in the most expensive way.

For instance, after 9/11 we could have installed steel doors to the airplane cockpits. That would have solved the problem with hijacking planes. We could have also rethought our policy towards the Middle East, and unconditional support for Israel in particular. That would have solved the problem with the terrorism.

Instead we have invaded two countries, one of which was not even remotely related to the attacks.

From policy towards the global warming to stem cells research and evolution, our politicians are making one idiotic stand after another, and AWB is not an exception.

To understand what is happening, let's go back to Senator Feinstein's web site. Here you have a proposal for a legislation, and right there, in the data section, there is a ton of research repudiating the effectiveness of the proposal, and NONE confirming it. If I were to come up with a business proposal like that at work, I would have been - understandably - reprimanded/got a bad review/demoted/fired.

And yet here we go - a Senator, a member of the country's most important branches of government - does not read her own sources. Heck, she does not even get her staff to read her own sources. And she faces ZERO consequences for doing so. She has been holding this job forever, is completely comfortable in her seat, and does not need to work to keep it. Because who else are you going to vote for - a Republican candidate that in the beginning of the 21st Century is still not 100% comfortable with the concept of evolution?

To make better laws, we need better lawmakers. To have better lawmakers, we need more competitive elections, we need more qualified candidates. And the only way to get that, it seems, is to dispense with the two-party system.