Opinion

              FILE - This March 27, 2006 file photo, shows a Bushmaster AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and ammunition on display at the Seattle Police headquarters in Seattle. The maker of the Bushmaster rapid-fire weapon used to kill schoolchildren in Connecticut on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, was put up for sale on Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012, as investors soured on the gun business. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
              FILE - This March 27, 2006 file photo, shows a Bushmaster AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and ammunition on display at the Seattle Police headquarters in Seattle. The maker of the Bushmaster rapid-fire weapon used to kill schoolchildren in Connecticut on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, was put up for sale on Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012, as investors soured on the gun business. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)   

Guns for dummies

Photo of Maureen Martin
Maureen Martin
Senior Fellow for Legal Affairs, The Heartland Institute

If we’re going to have a “national conversation” about banning “assault weapons” following Newtown — and it looks like we are — let’s at least know what we’re talking about and what we’re not talking about.

Adam Lanza used a Bushmaster AR-15 in the Newtown murders. Legally speaking, it’s an “assault weapon.” CNN is one of many media outlets calling for laws banning such “assault weapons” in the wake of the shooting. They should be available only in “war zones,” CNN’s Don Lemon asserted on Monday.

A horrifying image right out of Rambo instantly comes to mind: Sly Stallone mowing down dozens of bad guys with a single sweep of his terrifyingly deadly weapon, firing several hundred rounds of ammunition per minute. The impulse to “do something” is nearly irresistible. But let’s take a step back.

What Rambo used was an automatic “assault rifle.” This means a portable weapon capable of sustained bursts of fire with one squeeze of the trigger. It’s a type of what federal gun laws call a “machine gun.”

Civilian ownership of such weapons has been virtually banned for more than 25 years and severely restricted since 1934. Examples we all know from spy novels are the Russian-designed AK-47 and the U.S. military’s M16.

Adam Lanza didn’t use any such weapon, nor has any known mass murderer in recent memory.

The AR-15 that Lanza used is called a “semi-automatic” weapon. The “automatic” part means the spent cartridge is automatically ejected after firing and a new cartridge is automatically loaded. The “semi” part means the trigger must be pulled for each and every shot. Most handguns and long guns on the market today operate in exactly this fashion.

Calls to ban “assault weapons” are actually calls to ban weapons that look like the one Rambo used but which fire one bullet at a time. The AR-15 Lanza used “looks like” a machine gun but hardly operates like one. The term “assault weapon” is legally and functionally meaningless.

The AR-15 reportedly used by Lanza was described by Connecticut state police as an “assault-type weapon.” This is even more meaningless. It’s a legal and political term with no real utility.

In the horrific aftermath of Newtown, Americans understandably want to “do something” to prevent future tragedies. So far, gun bans are knee-jerk, feel-good solutions that would accomplish nothing in the way of meaningful reform.

Let’s all take a deep breath, pray for the victims and their families, and carefully consider any overly simplistic cures.

Maureen Martin (mmartin@heartland.org) is senior fellow for legal affairs at The Heartland Institute.