During Tuesday’s debate, there came the obligatory question on firearms. “President Obama,” an undecided voter inquired, “during the Democratic National Convention in 2008, you stated you wanted to keep AK-47s out of the hands of criminals. What has your administration done or planned to do to limit the availability of assault weapons?”
In the course of his response, Obama said this:
We’re a nation that believes in the Second Amendment, and I believe in the Second Amendment. We’ve got a long tradition of hunting and sportsmen and people who want to make sure they can protect themselves. But there have been too many instances during the course of my presidency, where I’ve had to comfort families who have lost somebody. Most recently out in Aurora. You know, just a couple of weeks ago, actually, probably about a month, I saw a mother, who I had met at the bedside of her son, who had been shot in that theater…I also share your belief that weapons that were designed for soldiers in war theaters don’t belong on our streets. And so what I’m trying to do is to get a broader conversation about how do we reduce the violence generally. Part of it is seeing if we can get an assault weapons ban reintroduced. But part of it is also looking at other sources of the violence. Because frankly, in my hometown of Chicago, there’s an awful lot of violence and they’re not using AK-47s. They’re using cheap handguns.
First off, while Obama’s answer was not necessarily designed to conflate “weapons that were designed for soldiers in war theaters,” “assault weapons,” “Aurora,” and “AK-47s,” it will nonetheless have done so in the minds of those less sensible of the detail. So, to clarify: An “assault weapon” is not a fully “automatic weapon,” nor a weapon “designed for soldiers.” “Assault weapon,” which is primarily a political term that has no real meaning outside of firearms legislation, is typically used to describe a semiautomatic rifle, one that fires a single round each time its trigger is pulled, which has been made to look like a military weapon. Obviously, making a weapon look “scary” or styling it physically on an automatic weapon does not make it one. As such, an “AK-47″ that has been modified for civilian use is pretty much just a hunting rifle with a scary looking exterior. Modified weapons such as these were restricted between 1994 and 2004, while the federal Assault Weapons Ban was in force and they are still restricted at the state level in a handful of states.
Conversely, an “automatic weapon” is any firearm that fires continuously when the trigger is depressed, and, if that trigger remains depressed, does not stop firing until the magazine is empty. An “AK-47,” as it exists in the public imagination, is an automatic weapon; weapons “designed for soldiers” are automatic weapons; a “machine gun” is an automatic weapon. When Obama mentions an “assault weapons ban,” he is referring to bringing back federal legislation that outlaws certain semi-automatic rifles, but he is not referring to doing anything about automatic weapons. Common as it is, it is either ignorant or disingenuous to point to automatic weapons in support of reinstating an “assault weapons” ban — although its political expediency cannot be questioned — and it is downright insidious to bring up the Aurora shooting as if it had anything to do with either “assault weapons” or automatic weapons. It didn’t.
Sadly, Romney did not add much clarity to the issue:
I’m not in favor of new pieces of legislation on — on guns and taking guns away or making certain guns illegal. We, of course, don’t want to have automatic weapons, and that’s already illegal in this country to have automatic weapons. What I believe is we have to do, as the president mentioned towards the end of his remarks there, which is to make enormous efforts to enforce the gun laws that we have, and to change the culture of violence that we have.
By saying so categorically that it’s “already illegal in this country to have automatic weapons,” Romney added to the misconceptions. It’s not illegal. It is difficult to obtain automatic weapons, but it’s not impossible. It is illegal to buy a new automatic weapon, but older weapons — of which there are hundreds of thousands — are grandfathered and still available for purchase. Such weapons are, however, heavily regulated under the National Firearms Act, which requires that all covered items must be registered with the ATF. In order to purchase an item on the NFA list (which also includes grenades, silencers, short-barrel shotguns, etc.), private owners must file a request with the ATF, obtain a signature from their county sheriff or police chief, undergo an extensive background check that includes the recording of biometric information, fully register the firearm, and pay a $200 tax. They must also receive the ATF’s written permission before moving the firearm across state lines. (This is not to mention that they must also be able to afford the weapon, which can cost $10,000 or more. As Obama correctly pointed out, “cheap handguns” are an awful lot more attractive to outlaws.)
Despite the best attempts of gun-control types to imply otherwise, fully automatic weapons are not even remotely a problem in the United States. Since the last overhaul of the rules in 1986, there has been precisely one occasion on which a legally obtained fully automatic weapon was used in committing a crime, and that crime was carried out by a deranged police officer. This is unsurprising, given that the process by which one obtains automatic weapons is extremely complicated, the weapons are very expensive, and to own one is to subject yourself to serious government scrutiny. Criminal types, who by definition do not follow the rules, are better off with a Saturday Night Special.