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Regulating assault rifles: A how-to guide for non-shooters

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Smart v. Stupid

Regulating assault rifles: A how-to guide for non-shooters

  • Joe Cereghino/Wikimedia

Many gun rights advocates imagine themselves to be three things: brave, knowledgeable and patriotic. Like the skewed-polls guy, this self-superior attitude leads to lots of insular, self-serving and circular logic about freedom. On the other side, gun-control advocates (who may never have even touched a gun) seek public disarmament. That’s an equally grandiose and unrealistic proposition, both because the country is flooded with over 300 million guns and because many, many people have a legitimate reason to have one.

As both a lifelong shooter and a gun-control supporter, I've lived on both sides of the fence. And I believe the main problem with guns is that they attract people who are paranoid and delusional (though most shooters are not deranged.) The other problem with guns is that it is perfectly legal to buy one that is a perfect tool for mass killing.

It is true that guns don’t kill people, people do. But that little bit of flimflam ignores the other truth: guns make killing much easier and much more likely. Harvard found the same thing in 26 developed countries – more availability of guns leads to more murder.

Rifles have certain characteristics that make them suitable for various purposes. Big calibers are better for shooting larger animals. Scoped rifles with floating barrels are better at shooting far distances. Shotguns are better for shooting flying targets. Some guns are easier to carry, and some are easier to shoot.

Some guns are designed for shooting indoors, for delivering a lot of bullets quickly and for aiming quickly and while moving. They are perfect tools for mass murder. The Bushmaster AR allegedly used in the Sandy Hook shootings is designed to quickly aim and deliver lots of bullets. They’re conceitedly called defensive weapons though their real purpose is offensive. (Shotguns are better for self-defense.)

But the design is not unique to Bushmaster. The company is just one of dozens of manufacturers making nearly identical copies of the military M-4. The M-4 is the military’s latest iteration of the M-16 platform (developed some 50 years ago during the Vietnam era.) It has a short barrel, a large magazine and a collapsible stock for killing in tight quarters. They are (selectively) automatic. The civilian versions are semi-automatic: one trigger pull, one bullet.

Being semi-automatic is not particularly important, though. This kind of gun has been around for 100 years, carried during World War I and even before. Semi-automatic shotguns (sometimes called “autoloaders”) are the shotgun of choice these days. The world’s most popular handgun, the semi-automatic Model 1911, is over 100 years old.

What seems to matter most in mass murders is how many times one can fire before reloading.

It is also not important that modern rifles are based on military designs. It has always been so. Prior to the popular adoption of the M-16 design for civilian weapons, the rifles of choice were based on the World War II-era M-1. Along with and before that, many sporting weapons were based on the bolt-action Mauser design carried by German soldiers starting in World War I. Military designs become popular because they are simply perfected designs. The M-16 design is used in lots of different kinds and calibers of gun these days, including long-barreled hunting rifles with 5-shot magazines.

There are also several other military designs that are offered in civilian versions, including an infinitely more popular, less-expensive military rifle, the Russian AK-47.

Still, by regulating the technical characteristics that make rifles suitable for mass shootings, we can make them less effective for mass killing. Here’s how:

1. Reduce magazine size to 5 or 10 rounds. When a mass shooting is occurring, each reload is an opportunity, either to tackle the shooter or for a mis-load or jam to occur. More reloads offer more chances to stop the shooter – or to escape.

2. Require all new guns to be manufactured with a design that won’t fit the millions of high capacity magazines now in circulation. 30 round magazines can be had for less than $10 each and you can buy as many as you want.

3. Make the manufacture, sale or possession of oversize new-style magazines illegal.

4. Require a design that makes it harder to change magazines quickly by requiring the shooter to hold a tool to detach the magazine rather than simply push a button. This approach leaves the shooter one hand short of a quick magazine change.

5. Require at least a 16” buttstock to increase the length of the weapon.

6. Eliminate folding and collapsible stocks. These devices make the rifle easier to point and aim in tight quarters by making it shorter.

7. Require rifle barrels to be at least 20 inches in length. Most civilian assault rifles come with a 16” barrel. Shorter barrels are easier to use in hallways. They are easier to move from side to side and easier to aim quickly at close targets.

8. Require that the bullet chamber be located in front of the trigger. One way to make a shorter rifle is the “bullpup” design, where the bullet loads at the back of the rifle. It would be a way to loophole a shorter rifle even with a longer barrel and buttstock.

Of course, all of this does nothing to regulate access to guns. But these common sense manufacturing standards do make guns less effective for mass shooting. They can be model and manufacturer independent (a flaw of the Assault Weapons Ban) and they don’t interfere with sporting uses. They address the exact problem of effective designs for mass killing.

Next up, we’ll talk about how to better regulate shooters, hoarders and clinically paranoid folks.

Jimmy will join John C. Scott on KVOI-AM1030 to discuss this article, Wednesday, Dec. 26 at 3 p.m.

Jimmy Zuma splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Tucson. He writes the online opinion journal, Smart v. Stupid. He spent 5 years in Tucson in the early ‘80s, when life was a little slower, swamp coolers were a little more plentiful, Tucson’s legendary music scene was in full bloom, and the prevailing work ethic was “don’t - unless you have to.”

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