President Biden has reinvigorated the seemingly age-old debate over “assault weapons” in the United States.
Following two horrific mass murders, one in Atlanta and another in Boulder, the president has come forward and urged Congress not to “wait another minute” in banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
But just why are these particular firearms and components the continuous subject of public ire? Is it that there is something distinctively lethal and dangerous about them, or do they appear so often simply because they are popular? I submit that it is the latter, and that the history of gun control in the United States reflects a tendency to restrict popular, affordable arms, without any countervailing benefits to public safety.
Although many gun rights advocates bicker over the term “assault weapon,” I see no reason for this. We know what you mean, you know what you mean. Semantics matter when you’re writing legislation, but for the purposes of discussion, I understand “assault weapons” to mean light weapons, chambered in intermediate cartridges (somewhere in between the power of a handgun and full-power rifle), with a detachable magazine and the capacity to accept various accessories.
We first saw assault weapons see the wrath of lawmakers in the late 1980s, when a drifter used an imported Chinese AK to murder school children in Stockton, California. Then, as now, lawmakers claimed to focus on the fact that these arms were chosen by criminals to commit bad acts. This resulted in a still-existent ban on the importation of many firearms.
Before that, in 1968, we saw Congress target “Saturday night specials” with the Gun Control Act. Then, as now, the focus was on criminals choosing a particular type of firearm to commit bad acts. Of course, it had no meaningful impact on the homicide rate.
Now, with horrific public events, we’re seeing it yet again. Everyone in the country, whether they’ve ever touched a gun or not, has some conception of what an AR-15 is. There is one thing, not often discussed, that strings together all of these pushes on the part of lawmakers to restrict firearms: they target affordable, effective firearms.
The Saturday night special ban saw the elimination of inexpensive pocket pistols, popular with working-class Americans for their price and relative effectiveness, while criminals moved up to larger, more powerful, albeit slightly more expensive firearms. This, of course, saw no appreciable impact on violent crime, and in fact likely made gunfights more lethal due to the prevalence of very low-powered chamberings in “Saturday night specials.”
The 1989 ban on the importation of “assault weapons,” and the 1994 federal assault weapon ban, targeted inexpensive imported firearms which were popular with both individuals seeking effective home defense weapons and collectors. The intersection of these bans resulted in “pre-ban” guns trading hands for copious sums, removing them from the reach of the working man, while contemporary research found the ban demonstrated no public safety benefit.
The 2004 expiration of the federal assault weapons ban saw an explosion in demand for these firearms, as ballisticians and tacticians agreed that the very weapons targeted by the 1994 ban were among the most effective home defense implements available. As production ramped up, prices fell, and the AR-15 very quickly became “America’s rifle,” followed somewhat distantly by the AKM platform.
In reality, we see firearms like AR-15s and AKs in the hands of criminals for the same reason we often see them driving Toyotas: They’re eminently accepted as effective, affordable and available firearms.
The very same utility that made assault weapons the arm of choice for law enforcement and home defense — reliability, availability and ease of use — make them no less attractive to a wrongdoer, sure. But we must remember: The vast majority of Americans are peaceful and law-abiding. A blanket ban on a class of arms will disproportionately affect ordinary Americans, and likely only inconvenience criminals, who will either substitute or simply disobey the law.
Before the COVID-induced run on guns, AR-15s traded hands for as little as $400, and AKMs were available for not much more. We’ve seen the Romanian Draco—a pistol based on the AKM — become overwhelmingly popular with urban and other working-class Americans. And despite a pop culture fixation with the firearm, it’s an incredibly lucid choice for home defense. Many Americans were able to acquire these firearms for under $500.
We know that poor and other disadvantaged Americans are disproportionately the victims of violent crime. Our habit of targeting the most inexpensive, effective firearms will likewise disproportionately price these Americans — who are most in need of an effective mechanism for self-defense — out of the market entirely. If we are concerned about gun violence in this country, we should focus on the mounting social tension that’s driving Americans to harm each other. Our current policy of ineffectually hamstringing the most popular firearms every couple of decades isn’t going to solve that problem.