Historically, the military has defined assault rifles as firearms used in
teams to 'assault' a defended position. They
have universally been capable of fully-automatic firing, selective firing of
bursts of two or three rounds, and single shots.
Commonly, they have used cartridges of moderate size so that the
individual soldier could carry more ammunition than was typical during the First
World War or Second World War. Another
consideration was that if an enemy were killed, only one soldier was put out of
commission. If an enemy were
wounded, then three or more were put out of commission as the wounded person was
cared for. So, full-metal jacket
bullets with moderate kinetic energy (except notably the US M-16) are typical of
a true assault weapon designed to wound instead of to kill.
A muzzle-brake to reduce recoil and upward barrel movement (especially in
full-automatic mode) is typical. Usually,
the muzzle-brake also incidentally served to reduce the flash during night
firing. However, a device that
functions only as a flash suppressor would disperse the incandescent gases
uniformly, unlike a muzzle brake.
Other accouterments that the military finds necessary, such as a lug for
mounting a bayonet or attaching a grenade launcher, are typical of most military
weapons, not just assault rifles. However,
it would be ludicrous to attempt to use a bayonet on many of the smaller assault
Variations on the basic design may include the use of a folding stock for
paratroopers or tank personnel.
One of the first true "assault rifles" was the Russian AK-47,
first made in 1947. Although, one
might consider the US M-1 Carbine (WWII) a prototype assault rifle because of
its size, caliber, and magazine capacity.
It should be no great surprise that when society requires large numbers
of young men to learn to use (and consequently come to respect) modern firearms
in defending the interests of their country, they often want to own something
similar to what they used in the military.
Money-making movies like Rambo also glorify the use of modern firearms
and create consumer demand.
However, since the possession of automatic weapons has been strictly
regulated and taxed by the federal government for decades, and outright banned
by some states such as California, the firearms industry has reacted in a good
capitalistic way by providing firearms that appear similar to the true assault
rifles and pistols used by the military.
Some military look-alikes make fine hunting guns.
Many of the qualities required of a firearm under combat conditions
translate well to hunting conditions. For
example, one wants a rifle that will function reliably whether it is hot,
snowing, raining, or it has just been dropped in the mud.
It must maintain its point of impact despite harsh treatment, and if
hunting in heavy brush, a short-barreled rifle is easier to point quickly.
The gas-actuated semiautomatic action, along with the common muzzle
brake, reduces the punishing recoil considerably, making it more useable for
older men, and women and men of small stature.
The typically smaller caliber (than what was used in trench warfare) can
be quite effective on animals such as deer with the proper choice of bullet
weight and construction. One of the
most popular deer rifles for decades has been a lever-action 30-30 carbine.
Contrary to popular belief, the AK-47 has ballistics almost identical to
Some people just enjoy 'plinking' or target practice with weapons they
have used in the military or have seen their movie heroes use. Surely people who do not have a criminal record should be
trusted to use their firearms responsibly.
To not do so is a loss of freedom-of-choice through prior restraint.
There never was any compelling evidence that the so-called (and then as
yet legally undefined) 'assault weapons' were any particular problem other than
in some extraordinary instances such as the Stockton school yard shootings.
In fact, a study done by the California Department of Justice was
suppressed until after the passage of the original assault weapons law because
it did not support the extravagant claims made by those pushing for the law.
The California legislature decided to legally define an "assault
weapon" in 1989 as something different from the military usage.
They selected a group of military firearms look-alikes that had many of
the above mentioned military features, which were difficult to politically
defend for any socially redeeming purpose, except perhaps self-defense.
Some of the military look-alike rifles that were used more commonly for
hunting and competitive shooting events were purposely excluded. The courts have repeatedly opined that the original law was
ill-conceived and poorly written though.
A decade later, as the proportion of young males who commit most crimes
of violence declined along with the homicide rate, some legislators and a
governor who campaigned on a non-issue, decided it was time to correct some
flaws in the original poorly written, unconstitutional law.
The author of the recently passed California law (SB 23), Don Perata, has
zealously pursued the eradication of so-called assault weapons for over a
decade. When he was an Alameda
County supervisor, he used his office and staff to distribute Handgun Control
Incorporated (HCI) literature in support of the then pending state assault
weapons law. This was discovered
accidentally by myself and independently confirmed by a friend, Leroy Pyle. Perata can not even make the claim that he didn't know what
he was doing was illegal, because he and his secretary went to the extent of
lying to a Channel 7 reporter when she called to verify my revelation.
So what kind of a man (who used to be a teacher) would knowingly break
the law to promote his personal crusade? Should
we be concerned that a man who has little respect for the law should be in the
position of writing laws? At the
very least, it appears he is the kind of a man who believes the end justifies
the means, and acts accordingly.
With little of the preliminary notoriety that accompanied the passage of
the first law, SB 23 was recently quietly passed.
Governor Davis, however, used the opportunity of the signing into law of
SB 23 on July 19th, 1999, to let the public know he had kept his
campaign promise of "getting assault weapons off the streets."
The law has been promoted as closing the loopholes in the original law.
The media has dutifully been reporting it as such.
However, I suspect that none of the reporters have read the law, of if
they did, did not understand it.
What the law has potentially
accomplished is to add to the list of originally banned firearms, firearms that
have been manufactured with different names and features -- commonly called
copycat weapons. I say
"potentially," because all one has to do is remove the feature(s) from
the firearm that were used to broaden the definition.
The law has also potentially added the rifles that were originally
specifically excluded. Again, at
the cost of reducing their value and perhaps affecting their utility as hunting
or competitive target rifles, one can avoid having the firearm registered as an
'assault weapon' by removing the largely cosmetic features used to newly define
an assault weapon. Therefore, what
Senator Perata, Governor Davis, and their supporters in the legislature have
really accomplished is a de facto
banning of the cosmetic features such as a "conspicuously protruding"
(undefined) pistolgrip, a flash suppressor (undefined), and a grenade or flare
launcher (usually a separate device attached to the bayonet lug).
It is clear that we don't elect our best and brightest to public office.
Maybe this is what the electorate really wants.
Really bright people with that much power would be dangerous.
As Mark Twain observed, no one is safe while the legislature is in
session. In any event, for those
with only a casual or passing interest in the subject, it would appear that our
'leaders' have made the state safer for everyone, and guaranteed their
However, it seems unlikely that any gang member who owns a firearm with
any of the features newly defining it as an assault weapon will be overly
concerned about violating the registration when he may well use it to kill
someone. There may even be some
cachet in retaining the banned features. In
any event, with or without the military-like cosmetic features, it is still a
firearm with all the attendant dangers and potential for improper use.
What the legislature has accomplished though, is to create ill will among
those, like myself, who will be inconvenienced by this miscarriage of the
legislation process. They will keep
the courts busy for years dealing with questions of prior restraint, taking of
property, infringement of Second Amendment rights, whether a muzzle brake is a
"flash suppressor," whether a folding bipod is a "second
handgrip," and what "conspicuously protruding" means.
(While May West might have provided some insight on that last topic, it
would have no legal standing.) If
there is an adjustable buttplate to accommodate shooters with different length
arms, is it a telescoping stock? These
are all questions that beg to be answered since the legislature did not address
People will find themselves arrested because they will unknowingly
violate the law when they otherwise legitimately use firearms they have owned
and used for years. Bench-rest
target shooters and varmint hunters using thumbhole stocks on semiautomatic
actions should be particularly upset with this new law.
We have been saddled with yet another ill-conceived, ineffective law by
zealots who think with their hormones instead of their heads. It is poorly crafted legislation addressing a relatively
minor social problem.
In summary, I would define a civilian assault weapon as anything that is
used to assault another human being. That
could be a baseball bat (currently in favor among gangs), an automobile, a
kitchen knife, or a zip gun. What
it looks like is not important. What
is important is how it is used. We
have had laws dating to biblical times prohibiting murder and robbery. We need the courage to enforce the fundamental laws against
harming another human being and not try to sidestep the problem with laws of
prohibition of objects. They just
create additional problems and create a new class of criminal.